Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘media

Speech, Official and Otherwise

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CEO Podium

For a minute, there was a little controversy brewing over the omission of a line in an official White House transcript.  In early June, the Obama White House was accused of omitting a statement from the official transcript about the Iran nuclear deal that was made by Press Secretary Josh Earnest.  But this is not the first time the official version of something has conflicted with the recorded version that was caught by the news media.  It also happened in 2005, when Congressional Quarterly and the Federal News Service said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said something that McClellan said he didn’t.  In that case too, the recordings didn’t match the White House transcript.  And of course, the White House isn’t wrong, because its transcript is “official”.

These incidents ask a very interesting question; whom and what should be believed?

When an “official” presents an “official” statement, the idea is this is the “official” stance of his or her bosses all the way to the top.  It shouldn’t change since everyone downstream is expected to be in philosophical agreement.  And when that official statement comes from the White House, you’d think it’s golden since there aren’t a lot of people between the President’s press secretary and the President.

So when there is a difference of interpretation between who is saying so, it can throw the whole credibility thing into question.  In fact, just because someone is in an “official” position doesn’t necessarily mean they are telling the truth.  Upon leaving, many high ranking and respected authorities voice very different positions to those they held while they were still employed by those officials.

The most glaring example I can think of was the retirement of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  He served two presidents of two parties, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  And when he started talking, from between the pages of his book, about failures of leadership in the execution of the Iraq war, higher ups in the current and former administrations backed away and not, I suspect, because he wasn’t credible.  To his credit, retired Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos, retired Army First Infantry Brigade Commanding General John Batiste and more than 20 other retired officers also openly criticized the policies of the decade long conflict.

But the point isn’t the formers officers speaking out, or that the policy was worthy of being spoken out against or even that the generals were retired and outside the reach of their former bosses.  The point was that those were the people who best knew policy and politics, tactics, strategy, manpower and budget.  And yet, they lost their war because they identified the wrong enemy.  They weren’t disputing that military power must be subordinate to civil power.  But they were disputing civil power’s credibility to define reality.

Officials may haul out reams of numbers and reports to explain to a questioning public that something which seems simple, isn’t or something that was said, wasn’t.  It is, in part, the paternalism that pervades organizations with historically complex missions.  “We are the expert.  Look over here, not over there.  Sit back, be quiet and listen to Daddy.”  But one of the key functions of the best people deep within in those organizations is to take the complex and make it simple for those on the inside, because they like straight lines too.

The people who know an organization best may be the people inside it.  But it may also be the people who are willing to speak truth about it.  And those two aren’t always the same.

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How to Be Wrong

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Red X

KBOO is a community radio station here in Portland that has occupied the far left politically and on the radio dial for almost 50 years.  I conduct interviews for KBOO’s news and public affairs.  So I assumed that because KBOO champions LGBTQ issues, the news director would be interested in new Governor Kate Brown’s view on human rights issues as they affect that group.  Ms. Brown is the nation’s first bi-sexual state executive.  I had been trying to secure an interview since shortly after she assumed the governorship.

Chris Pair, the Governor’s spokesperson was, at all times, prompt in his replies to my requests and cordial in explaining the governor’s schedule and the difficulty in getting an interview for anything except in response to specific issues, i.e. bill signings, policy statements, etc.  But today, he was specific by saying focusing on anything other than Ms. Brown’s work in office is not where they want to take the messaging.

Jenka Soderberg, KBOO’s news director concurred with Mr. Pair.  She said she didn’t understand why the mainstream media, including the Oregonian, had latched onto Ms. Brown’s personal life while there were many more pressing issues that she felt deserved public attention.  Among them, what Ms. Brown can do as Governor to prevent the EPA from forcing the city to cover its reservoirs.  Or learning her views on preventing Nestle’ from setting up a bottling plant in Cascade Locks and using ungodly amounts of water while Oregon is suffering through its worst drought in decades.

At that moment, I felt like I had missed a meeting.  And I remembered again why they’re called news “directors”.  I guess it’s one thing to assume something is important, but it’s another for it to actually be as important as you assume.  And we all know what happens when we assume.  Reporters need directors and editors because reporters are not always right.

Maybe later, the messaging will line up and make that other conversation happen. Maybe not.  But pressing business is the headline today.

I get it.

Written by Interviewer

May 22, 2015 at 09:47

The Bottom Line

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Rain Stick

“Nattering Nabobs of Negativity”.

I was a kid when Spiro Agnew spoke those words as he resigned from the Office of the Vice President in 1973.  Mr. Agnew had been accused of corruption and allowing his office to be influnced by outside monied interests. Specifically, according to Wikipedia, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney’s office for the District of Maryland, and charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland, and Vice President.

But instead of speaking to that responsibly, he did in his press conference what a surprising number of the high profile accused (and convicted) for mostly any crime tend to do.  He talked about what he felt had been done to him by the media.  Agnew implied that the news media had used their role to turn public opinion against him.

The news media is a lot like a rain stick.  Kids who’ve been to camp know its a hollow tube, taped at both ends and filled with rice or gravel.  When you shake it, its supposed to sound like rain.  Two things about a rain stick.  First, it doesn’t shake itself.  And second, no matter how much noise it makes, the noisemakers stays inside the tube.

People accuse the news media of causing problems by amplifying the small into the ginormous.  But that’s not how news works.  The public have to believe there is something there to wonder about in the first place. They have to care.  And although  the news is very, very good at finding those little things to be examined, if people aren’t really interested, reporters don’t follow up and the story eventually fizzles.  In other words, people have to want the stick shaken.

Don’t believe me?  Look back at all of the times reporters have been kidnapped.  If there is ever a instance when the media would push a story to drive a story, it’s then.  And even then, it was hard to keep the public interested in media’s efforts to get one of it’s own released.  By contrast, when a journalist is accused of unethical behavior, that captures everyone’s attention because people are thinking, “That journalist has been in my house making suggestions to me and my family about what we should do or how we should live.  They’re always supposed to be right, ethical, above board”.

That can feel like a betrayal which is much more personal.  And curiously, even some of those journalists, if they find themselves muttering Agnew’s defense, know its public interest, not necessarily their colleagues, driving the story.  Yes, the media does eat, chew and spit out a lot, but its a diet largely dictated by the public.  If that wasn’t true, newsrooms everywhere wouldn’t be filled with image consultants, social media accounts and rapidly spinning revolving doors.

So when Governor Kitzhaber said in his statement of resignation yesterday that “it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved”, he is, in some ways, repeating the sentiments of those who don’t see that although the news media isn’t necessary the light of day, it can be the magnifying glass.

But it isn’t holding itself.

Exactly Who Are They Talking To?

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Polyglot

When I hear a political speech in English from a foreign politician or diplomat, I always wonder what is the intention of the message?  Who are they really talking to and what do they really want?  I mean, if the President of the United States intentionally speaks directly to the citizens of a foreign country through an interpreter, he is talking to them, not Americans.  When this happens, it’s usually to rally the people by talking around an oppressive regime or somehow repair a damaged American image.

Likewise, when I hear a foreign leader or representative speaking English when English is not one of their official languages, I conclude they are are not talking to their own people, they’re talking to Americans.  And then I wonder why?  There are plenty of examples of press conferences where someone from country X is talking to the world media, but the language they use is that of their own people.  Their own media doesn’t have to interpret.

But when they speak in English, the message is very different.  It’s directed to American politicans who direct America’s money and military and influence.  Or it’s directed at the American people who can be a soft touch for broad themes they’ve mined from our history like liberty or here recently, collective fear.  “This is not just a threat to us”, they like to say as if to say, “Support us if you know what’s good for you.”

Listeners need to listen close to what foreign leaders are saying or warning when they choose to speak in English.  It’s going to be significant to US foreign policy eventually.  At the same time, the dynamics of political speech aren’t that deep.  It’s just human interaction.  The level may be different but content and context aren’t much different.  Think of office cubicles with nuclear weapons and you’ve pretty much summed up the mundaneness of how people try to coerce each other on the geopolitical stage.

Written by Interviewer

January 13, 2015 at 06:35

Media Questions About Charlie Hebdo Not Naval Gazing This Time

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Charlie Hebdo

Media is a human institution, just like every other institution on this planet.  It is not perfect.  The media has been accused of everything from under focusing on the right thing to over focusing on the inane thing.  But sometimes, it gets the hard look at itself right.

NPR’s Here and Now had a discussion with Eric Wimple, Media Columnist for the Washington Post on whether there is a level of hypocrisy amongst the media regarding the reprinting of debatable political cartoons by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  Two and possibly three terrorists involved in the killings of Charlie Hebdo staff and French police were killed in and outside of Paris by French police.  The hashtag “#Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) has popped up as a sign of solidarity with the right to free speech as expressed in their political cartoons.

But there has been a counter hash tag, “#Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo” (I am not Charlie Hebdo) as a way of saying although the killings were unacceptable, some of the cartoons the magazine published were purposely incendiary and equally unacceptable to some.

This has landed some media smack in the middle of the question of how much support they will give Charlie Hebdo.  It should be noted that the publication itself has already said they will meet their next printing deadline on time and publish as usual.  But the New York Times and Slate are revealed to be on opposite sides of that intention of support.

Here and Now reported that the New York Times will not re-publish any of Charlie Hebdo’s more controversial cartoons, esp. those that depict the prophet Mohammed.  Slate, by contrast, will.  And the question for journalists is, where is the line separating the brotherhood of the pen from what their audience (including advertisers) will bear?

Charlie Hebdo does not need other publications to carry their water.  They have hoisted their own load onto their own shoulders, terrorists be damned.  The ink still pulses within them and that makes anyone who truly is a “journalist” proud.  But journalists don’t make the business decisions where stockholders and cultures with fickle morals compasses are concerned.

But at least this time, the conversations within the Fourth and Fifth Estates are actually rocking the houses.

Calling the Media’s Hand

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Big Kanuna

Sometimes, as media and journalists, we can get caught in our own rules of fairness.

I don’t have a good handle on why some media outlets focus solely on major party candidates during forums in advance of presidential, general and off year elections. Maybe it’s got to do with polling and how the issues of third party candidates aren’t always the same main issues as they are for the majors. Maybe it’s got to do with the influence of the majors who want the punch bowl all to themselves and more or less convince the media through ad buys that they deserve it. Maybe it’s got to do with the fact that the numbers of the minors don’t come close to those of two party candidates and so, the media – a numbers driven concern – makes an economic decision that the largest audience comes from those who capture the largest numbers. I don’t know.

But I do know the standards of Sigma Delta Chi, which is the organization for the Society of Professional Journalists. And its stated missions are (1) to promote and defend the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press; (2) encourage high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism; and (3) promote and support diversity in journalism. So when Third Party candidate Jason Levin crashed a debate between only Democratic Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Republican challenger Dennis Richardson at the editorial offices of the Pamplin Media Group on September 23rd, it was kinda what the latter three deserved.

Political forums are not private love-ins. They should be more like racous holiday dinners where the whole family is at the table.  Of course, maybe that’s just me.  I happen to like the idea of the unpredictable and the un-anointed peeing in the sacred pool.  That’s why although I think weather modeling and the Dow Jones Industrial 30-day average are cute, they show us every day that we have no idea what will or should happen next.  I root not for the havoc, but the humbling.

Besides, if Oregon’s Ballot Measure 90 passes, getting a seat at that table may be even more difficult for third party candidates in the future. Congratulations to Mr. Levin for having the kahunas to pull out his own chair and forcing forum hosts to put their journalistic principles above whatever it was that made them initially not.

The 10, the 5, TOUCHDOWN!

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football

Let’s talk about spokespeople. 

Often times, they are employees of the organization they represent, meaning they are staff rather than contractors.  That is an important distinction because it can affect the vehemence with which they defend their organization against allegations.  It means they may likely be emotionally invested in their co-workers by believing they not only have to protect the mission of the organization, but the relationships they have with the people in it.  And they likely have had to work very hard over a long period of time to convince their organization’s management structure to (1) trust that they will represent the organization faithfully to the press, and (2) convince that organization to let only them be the official voice when bad things happen.  Neither of these are easy to accomplish.

Organizations, by and large, have a bury their head in the sand reaction whenever something happens that attracts media attention.  Even good things that draw media focus can make managers unskilled with the media circle wagons.  Management views outreach as exposure.  A good media relations person, by contrast, builds relationships with the media.  They want to talk to reporters.  These two attitudes conflict frequently within organizations.  Only by showing aplomb and bringing consistently good press do PR people convince managers to relax when a reporter calls.  That’s the trust part.

Being the only voice, that’s harder because if an organization has not had a spokesperson or if that spokesperson has been ineffective, a new spokesperson must establish ground rules for employees in their interaction with the media.  And for employees who feel that talking to the media is no big deal, this can be an uphill fight for the spokesperson.  At some point, I’ll talk about bosses that say dumb stuff.  But with regards to employees, those unaware of particular company policy or discreet legalities can say some incredibly stupid things that can live in newsprint or on the Internet forever.  Management that has not made it clear that every employee must run any media contact through the spokesperson is setting them up to be called after hours by a reporter to confirm something that maybe, should’ve never been made public.

So a recent story by NPR was illustrative in showing how PR people can fail and how the media can end up doing an end run around them.  The US Customs and Border Patrol, an agency of US Homeland Security is at the center of scrutiny over the deaths of several dozen migrants that have crossed the southern border illegally in recent years.  When NPR’s John Burnett visited a CBP facility in April and asked questions of an official about the hierarchy of response officers must employ when confronted with rock throwing migrants, the female spokesperson abruptly ended the interview.  Maybe this happened because the NPR reporter asked questions that were not part of any pre-interview briefing between the reporter and the CBP.  But NPR most likely made it very clear that they wanted to know about CBP policy regarding hierarchy of response.  The interview was probably cut short because the agency was so hyper-sensitive to this issue, that hyper-sensitivity had trickled down to the spokesperson.  Perhaps management told her that under no circumstances do we want to address hierarchy of response since addressing it opens up the possibility of liability.  And she, being a good soldier, fell on that sword by turning away a national news reporter with a running recorder from a pre-arranged interview.

It didn’t look or sound good. Hear it here at about 2:18.

Months later, NPR went straight to the new head of the CBP, R. Gil Kerlikowske.  He’s had a reputation for prying open agencies by holding news conferences within 24 hours of incidents with negative press potential.  This had proved a winning strategy with the media but ran smack up against inertia by bureaucracies that hate bright lights. He is now doing the same thing with the CBP and told NPR that he would not only be more transparent but that he would specifically address directly the issue of hierarchy of response in a public way.

There is no doubt that the new manager and his new media policy is what got NPR in to see him.  Otherwise, that would’ve been impossible and NPR would’ve had to rely on leaks or other means and methods to discover agency intentions.  To get an idea of how impenetrable agencies can be, think about how open the NSA or the IRS are with the media.  Mr. Kerlikowske’s efforts are a big deal.

Getting back to that spokesperson, she may still have her job.  After all, she was just doing her job.  But I have no doubt that the irony was not lost on her, especially if she comes from a news reporting background.  Spokespeople tend to be the best informed and the most tuned into general society within the organization.  They read the mood of the surrounding media and balance it against what they know is happening inside the organization.  Then, they give their best advice to management.  It’s possible that spokesperson, from her own experience with crisis management, told her managers to be more open.  But she was probably overruled by a higher media authority, likely a public affairs office at Homeland Security, a cabinet level agency.

So you can bet that when NPR did its end run around her, if she still had that job, she may have felt a little betrayed.  It’s her job, ultimately, to do what she’s told.  But betrayal is not a feeling spokespeople are unfamiliar with.  You can trust me on that one.  For sure, I’ll bet she thought long and hard about how her own years of experience were considered (or not).