Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Obama

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.

TV Logistics of Interviewing the President

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Rose Garden

The interview between President Obama and Steve Croft of CBS News highlights some of the logistical issues when doing an interview with a high profile interviewee.

The interview was presented in at least two segments.  One segment was the portion that took place inside the White House.  In that interview, there are occasions when Mr. Croft’s face is predominant in the shot, times when Mr. Obama’s face is predominant and times when both men are in the shot.  Here, there is the luxury of at least two and maybe more cameras.  These cameras are on tripods and the room has excellent lighting and sound.  This arrangement gives the viewer a full, high quality view of the interchange between both people together and individually.

It also is the best situation for the editor who must later reduce the entire conversation to something that fits into the available broadcast time slot.  The reporter knows to re-ask questions if necessary, to ask the interviewee to repeat answers if needed or to get reaction shots (a look that implies the listener is concentrating on what the speaker is saying).  This is good for the editor because reaction shots not only help move the conversation forward in the natural back and forth way people expect, but they give the editor a chance to butt portions of the conversation together that might not have been together in the original talk.  This can help truncate the conversation or cover a mistakes.  In an indoor setting with those kind of resources, do overs are less of a big deal.

But the other segment of the interview took place along the walkway bordering the Rose Garden that leads to the President’s office.  Here, there was only one camera.  It was shoulder-mounted, or possibly on a body-pod.  The lighting and sound is not as good as it is inside.  The shot may not be as steady.  So the reporter and camera-operator need to use different techniques outside.

One of them is the classic walk and stop.  The President and Mr. Croft are chatting as they walk down the sidewalk toward the camera while the camera is also moving backwards.  At some point, Mr. Croft stops.  Mr. Obama then also stops and the camera-operator gets the chance to better frame the two of them while they continue to talk.  This is a technique reporters often use to take subtle control of the conversation.  You’ll see them use this slightly dramatic device a lot at the start of their stories as part of their lead in.

But one camera greatly limits how this portion of the interview can be edited later because there isn’t the flexibility that comes with video provided by other cameras.  And if you have an interviewee like the President who is being closely managed by a communications manager or other staff who probably want to get him inside, there may not be time to get the best shots that make the editing easy and seamless later.

This was clear during the outside portion.  You see the President and Mr. Croft standing together.  The shot was framed so that Mr. Obama’s right profile was facing the camera while Mr. Croft was to his left and almost centered.  In the next shot, the two men are at 45 degrees to each other and centered in the camera – a two shot.  In TV parlance, the abrupt scene change is called a jump-cut.  Since there was no second camera, there was no reaction shot, so the abrupt change couldn’t be hidden.  And its likely that the decision was made that the President would not be asked to repeat answers so the camera operator couldn’t get a shot that would make the editing easier and less jarring later.

I’ve spent many years behind a video camera, both in the studio and in the field, and as just as many in an edit bay.  When you’re shooting and you know you can’t get the shot you need, you’re not looking forward to the editing because you know it’s not going to look the way you want.  But sometimes, it just can’t be helped.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Written by Interviewer

October 12, 2015 at 22:59

Fer it before he wuz agin it

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Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush told Megyn Kelly on Fox News that he, along with many people in the Senate in 2001, would’ve done exactly what his brother, former President Bush did when confronted with 911; pursue a course of war.  That was certainly a clear answer.  But later, Mr. Bush, while being interviewed by Sean Hannity, said he didn’t understand the question as it was posed by Ms. Kelly, called it a” hypothetical” and said he didn’t know what he would’ve done.

Perhaps supporters of the war who are also Bush’s supporters put pressure on him to recant.  But his follow up is one of those things that make you go, hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm …

But before it looks like this is bagging on Jeb Bush, consider:
– Theantimedia.org said Rand Paul was against the Drug War before he was for it
– The New American says General Norman Schwartzkopf was against the 1991 Gulf War before he was for it
– Twitchy.com says John Kerry was for the Iraq war before he was against it
– Fox News says former Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards was for the war in Iraq before he was against it.
– The Daily Kos says Mitt Romney was for the Vietnam War before he was against it.
– Outside the Beltway says Senator John McCain was for trading taliban prisoners for Army Sgt. Beau Bergdahl before he was against it
– Wizbangblog says former President Bill Clinton was for the war in Iraq before he was against it.
– Politicususa.com says Paul Ryan was for the war in Syria before he was against it
– Foreign Policy magazine says President Obama says he was against the authorization for the war before he was for it
– Politicalwire.com says former Vice President Dick Cheney was against the Iraq was before he was for it …

… and on and on.

Clearly, Mr. Bush doesn’t want to throw his brother under the bus for the 12-year Iraq War.  But you don’t hear Republicans speaking of George W. with the same reverence of Ronald Reagan.  That says something about how party faithful on the right see the Bush Doctrine.

The larger point is politicians change their minds for their own reasons like all of the rest of us.  Except when we do it, it isn’t necessarily a judgement on our character or mental faculties.  It won’t necessarily destroy our lives or give people license to judge us for the rest of our lives because we were human.

Interviewers need to bring up inconsistencies like this during subsequent interviews.  To not is to deny constituents, whether they’re listening to business leaders or politicians, the opportunity to truly understand their thought process.  And once recants like this are being discussed, the interviewer needs to press the question to the edge of journalistic decorum.