Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Email

Yes or No

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When citizens want to ask their legislator a question, the best way is to visit. If you can, just show up with your question in hand.  The face to face dynamics between legislator and citizen (or even legislative aide and citizen) leaves a lasting impression that carries all the way to the ballot box.  Because that old saw, “What people do and what they say matters a lot less than how they made you feel” is absolutely true and doesn’t lie. Of course you want a substantive and true answer, but you want sincerity too.

The next best way is to call.  It’s fast and it’s direct.  It can be intimidating because the bureaucracy of a government official and their staff can feel off putting.  But voice to voice really is the next best way to hear how you’re regarded.  We all know what being dismissed over the phone sounds like, and if you can call your representative and you don’t hang up with that feeling, that’s a great thing.

The next best way is email.  While there is no direct, person to person contact, you do have a record which is the advantage of a letter combined with the immediacy of a phone call.  Again, the tenor of the reply quickly shows how dedicated the office of your congressman or congresswoman is to constituent services.

The last best way is by letter.  There is no direct, person to person contact and there is no immediacy.  But a letter has a cachet’ that none of the other forms have.  Offices know that when someone sits down and takes the time to write a letter, this is probably someone who is not going to be easily placated by a quick answer.  This type of person has patience.  They do their homework and they can be a legislator’s worst nightmare if they don’t get a personal and comprehensive answer.

So what does this have to do with a simple yes or no?

The more direct the interaction, the fewer opportunities for others to erect barriers between you and the answer you’re seeking.

Bill Cosby has a great routine where, one of his kids breaks a lamp and he asks, “Who did it?” The kid responds “I don’t know”.  But since that kid was the only kid in the room, as Cosby says, “You know who did it”.  Many times, when people call their legislator looking for answers to questions, the best kind of question to ask is one where a simple yes or no is really the only reasonable response.  Parents and the partnered know the logic of this.  When confronting a loved one, all you want to know is what is the answer, yes or no.  And you know, if you get a fifteen minute answer to a two second question, there is probably a lie in there somewhere.

Many times, the responder will argue that the answer needs context.  That they need to make sure you understand the circumstances around what made them make the decision they made.  They sometimes say an issue is too complicated to give a yes or no answer.  But if your kid breaks a lamp, or you find a condom missing from the box of condoms in your partner’s nighttable, you don’t need an explanation of the financial fortunes of Pottery Barn or how the process of vulcanization works.  A simple yes or no will do.

So when a question pops into your mind, dear citizen, do not let yourself be swayed by delays or obfsucation.  As with interviews, make clear what you want to know before you make contact.  Listen to the answer you get and ask yourself, does that answer the question?  If not, come around again and this time, be prepared to strafe.

I Don’t Have to Take This.

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Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, walked out of an interview with KATU reporter Kelly Lane in early January after four minutes and two questions.  Staff cut the interview short because they said the governor needed to stay on schedule.  But coincidentally, the interview ended immediately after Ms. Lane asked Mr. Kitzhaber about the failed Cover Oregon website. The governor’s office has taken an intense amount of what some would call well deserved heat for a breakdown in the site at practically every level of its development and implementation.

There are many reasons why a prior appointment time may have been missed by a staffer, thus forcing an interview to be cut short. Staffers also however, have the responsibility of shielding their bosses from potentially embarrassing questions that could lead to other questions about credibility. Which precipitated this incident is unclear.

This non-interview reveals how the most simple questions can be the most explosive, with two in particular being the time honored fuse and match. They represent the most basic questions reporters must ask whenever they are talking to a politician about a high profile and potentially politically damaging subject.  Ms. Lane managed to ask a derivative of one of them. They are:

1.  What did you know and when did you know it?

2.  Where did the money come from and where did it go?

This whole kerfuffle was because the governor said he never received a message regarding an update on the problems of Cover Oregon although a member of the legislature said they received a reply from the Governor’s office that he would.  Email messages can certainly be lost, accidentally deleted or misdirected.  Which was the cause of the truncated conversation comes down, sadly, to he said “I didn’t get the message” while she says “Oh yes you did”. But there are things the reporter can do to not get in the way of these snits because such confusion can be surprisingly illuminating. And when it happens, it’s not the reporter’s job to get in their way or save an interviewee from themselves, although there can be exceptions.   Those safeguards include:

1.  Confirming the amount of time that will be set aside for the interview in advance and re-confirming that time before the interview begins.

2.  Never taking such incidents personally.  Reporters should only be a mirror that reflects the candidate’s behavior and actions back to themselves and their audience.  A clear reflection lets the audience apply their own filter and make their own judgments on candidate viability.

I’ve said before how one of the most important things that the reporter can do during an interview is prompt a “reveal”.   But as this example shows, non interviews can prompt them as well.

Written by Interviewer

February 26, 2014 at 12:21