Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for September 2015

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An unflattering video. Suspicious editing. People’s character under attack.

This isn’t about the current controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood. ICYMI, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards defended herself before a congressional committee yesterday. The issue was a secretly recorded video that seemed to show planned parenthood employees talking about the organization making money from the sale of aborted fetal tissue. The video has prompted congressional Republicans to try to eliminate all federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

No, this is about former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sharrod. Ms. Sharrod, a black woman, was attacked for allegedly making racist comments during a public meeting in 2010. The meeting was videotaped and edited by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart and widely distributed to politicians and news outlets.

The NAACP subsequently attacked Ms. Sharrod and she was pressured to resign from her federal appointment as Georgia State Director of USDA Rural Development. It was later discovered that Ms. Sharrod had not made racist comments and had been unjustly portrayed by Mr. Breitbart as well as unjustly vilified by the NAACP and Obama administration. In a turn around, then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered Ms. Sharrod a high level appointment which she turned down before quietly retiring from Federal service.

These stories share not just questionably edited video but that despite the fact that both videos were known to be heavily doctored by individuals with a strong ideological bent, policy makers considered them legitimate and thus, a basis for attack.

That people will fight to protect their own view of the world is a given. However, no math on Earth argues that 1+1=3. Likewise, an audio or video track is a tangible, electronic footpath of things actually said or actually seen. And when pieces are removed, what’s left might be called “interpretation” by some but a lie by others. That is an issue law enforcement is beginning to face as the public demands to see unedited footage of violent interactions between citizens and the police. It is also why many reporters are now posting unedited audio or video along with their finished interviews.

It is often said, “Truth is the first casualty of war”. In the war of words between battling ideologies, one has to marvel at the extent some will go to reshape reality as much as the extent to which others will go to believe it.

Because the fact is, in the world of politics, facts only matter until they don’t.

Donald Trump Not Knocked Down Again

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I watched with interest Scott Pelley’s 60 Minutes interview with Donald Trump.  What I got out of it was that although Mr. Pelley pounded Mr. Trump with rapid fire questions, Mr. Trump responded with rapid fire answers that were totally coherent.

I remember when former presidential candidates struggled over geo-political, international finance, or immigration issues.  Donald Trump did not struggle.  He admitted his eschewed and outsider status with establishment politicians.  He reiterated his intention to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, retrieve American jobs from Asia and reduce America’s support of certain countries in the Middle East.  He outlined a complicated tax policy. The thing about Donald Trump is although he is extreme, he does seem to own up to the things Republicans wish the traunche of current candidates had the guts to say.

The problem is that the Republicans who support Mr. Trump are not the majority of voters who, according to a century of polls, are what statisticians like to call “Middle America.”  Middle America is generally accepting of the intracacies of the economy, the problems with immigration and the complications of international relations than their more conservative countrymen.  They know the President has to walk a thin line and they don’t want Wall Street gouging them no matter how much the more free market thinkers among us think more money means better everything.

But as I watched the interview, I noticed that between the interview segments, the story reinforced Trump’s growing power, popularity and influence.  It acknowledged him as an egotist but also as a power broker.  And without the yelling that normally orbits a Trump interview, I noticed what seemed to me Mr. Trump extracting quiet respect from Mr. Pelly.

When he challenged Trump on him saying that if the presidency doesn’t work out, he’ll go back to business, I thought to myself, that probably wasn’t the best indictment of someone’s qualifications.  I remembed hearing something very similar regarding George Washington, our first president.  Apparently, Mr. Washington didn’t seek the presidency either.  But he was asked repeatedly by his peers and took the job reluctantly.  And when his term was finished, he returned to his quiet life as a successful businessman.

I haven’t watched the segments of the interview that didn’t make it into the 60 Minutes story,  But Mr. Pelley fired all of his questions and Donald Trump emerged from the inteview standing.  Throughout it all, Mr. Trump displayed an air of confidence if bordering arrogance, of assertion if bordering aggression, of vision if bordering magical thinking.  But he hardly sounded any worse than any in the current Republican presidential field who say everything but what their constituents wish they would.  I can’t tell if they’re worse than Trump because they’re not as honest or better than Trump because they’re more diplomatic.  But either way, he’s got to be their worst nightmare.  He has Reagan’s optimism for America, Chris Christie’s ability to throw a punch, Ted Cruz’s brainpower and he’s not politically correct.

It will be very interesting to see what happens in the weeks and months to come.


NPR’s Elsa Chang just did a story (December 22, 2015) where she visited a military academy Donald Trump’s father sent him to as a teenager.  The story didn’t exactly glorify Trump, but highlighted his desire to be the best, his willingness to be led so as to learn how to lead, his prowess as a ladies man and the fact that 50 years later, his classmates still admire him.

Like with the CBS story above, this is good press for Trump.  Interesting.



Written by Interviewer

September 28, 2015 at 10:28

Posted in Scratchpad

Tagged with , ,

News, Politics and Dead Children

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I just listened to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a follow up report by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed on the BBC Newshour.  A family in which a father, Abdullah Kurdi, lost both of his boys and his wife as he tried to get them to Europe from Turkey and the grief of the remaining family was featured.  One of his sons has become the subject of worldwide revulsion.  More about that later.

As I listened to the father and his sister crying over the death of the children, and the father’s pledge to put a banana on their graves each day (the children loved bananas), I was thinking about the function of emotional impact on breaking news stories and how politicians gravitate between amplifying and attenuating that impact in their own political self-interest.

When Terry Schiavo was at the center of a life support termination whirlwind in the early 2000s, the conservative elements of the American Congress rallied, along with then President George W. Bush, to try to prevent her husband from disconnecting Ms. Schiavo.  The Congress intervened as the country was embroiled in a debate about what constituted “persistant vegetative state”.  Eventually Mr. Schiavo did disconnect his wife from life support despite what some called the misplaced efforts of Congress.

This refugee crisis issue doesn’t seem much different in that the life of a people and their right to survive is being counterbalanced against public opinion which has again translated into political calculation.  Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq and Syria, crossing the Mediterranian, and landing in Greece and Turkey as they try to make it to Germany.  Germany has opened it’s doors to them but curiously, those people are being blocked by Hungary and are unable to reach Germany.  David Milliband, former Home Secretary for Great Britian, told Todd Zwllich of The Takeway today that the United States needs to begin taking more refugees to help reduce Europe’s crisis.

The Newshour’s Tim Franks paraphrased the speech by Mr. Harper addressing the crisis by saying that people can expect many more deaths.  Mr. Harper himself said he has visited a refugee camp and said the numbers of people awaiting transit to Europe stretches into the millions.  That clip, though possibly incomplete, seems to suggest that although there will be more deaths, we should not be surprised by them.  And that seems to be an oh-so-gentle way of beginning the distancing of the political responsibility from the humanitarian crisis.  That he has visited a camp apparently buys him little on the way to being able to actually address its existence.

Europe is hamstrung as to what to do about the flow of refugees, even though the spigot was turned on the moment President Assad of Syria began barrell-bombing citizens he called dissidents and turning a blind eye to ISIS operatives in his territory.  That is what began the flow of people west and north away from the Middle East and North Africa.  And it represents a second catastrophic failure of political will by the world in general.

Injured and dead children are no motivation for change.  Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “Napalm Girl” from the famous photo taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War was nine.  The war raged on for three more years.  And if twenty murdered six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman in 2012 didn’t affect the politics of guns in one of the most powerful and progressive countries on Earth, the ability of other nations to successfully address their own crisis doesn’t look hopeful.  Maybe it’s a defect in human DNA.  But when babies, like 2-year old Alyan Kurdi, the son of the father mentioned above, wash up on beaches as corpses or disappear beneath oceans because elections, public opinion, budgets and soverignty collide with empathy, resolution promises to be a long, slow, grinding process in which many many, many more will die indeed.

As a reporter, I understand how vile and intransigent politics and politicians can sometimes be.  But as a listener hearing a crying father, or as a reader looking at a picture of a toddler in tiny tennis shoes face down in beach sand, I find me sometimes asking journalism, “What am I supposed to do with this horror?”

Photo by Virginia Mayo of Reuters