Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘politics

I was so Disappointed

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Fanning a Fire

As I listened to the Friday News Roundtable, which is hosted every week by OPB, one of the panelists said how “disappointed” they were that Republican nominee Donald Trump did not pick a more explosive and contentious vice-presidential running mate.

I thought to myself, “So, to be clear, you are disappointed that a potentially destructive candidate did not pick a more equally destructive running mate because that will make for a more boring story for you to report.”

This is another one of the long list of problems I believe permeate the news biz.

I loved the mid 2000’s TV show “Scrubs” because of its biting commentary on medicine, hospitals, doctors and culture.  One episode I remember was an argument between long time staff nurse Laverne and Chief of Interns, Perry Cox.  Laverne was asking about the tendency of surgeons to always choose exploratory surgery over other options and Cox said, “When was the last time you ever met a cutter who didn’t want to cut? Laverne! You have been here 40 years now, have you ever heard such a thing?”

Likewise, news people apparently don’t prefer a news story that is interesting but without the poisonous consequences over one filled with prurient and insane interest that also results in horrible consequences.  Part of the reason, I think, is because the more messy, complex, bigoted, disgusting story is guaranteed to have plenty of news babies; each of which can then be teased out ad nauseum and in gruesome detail.

They might say they don’t choose the stories they must report, and I expect that’s right.  One problem with the media is it is a competition.  Whoever can claim to be the fastest to report is seen as the best, the “news authority”.  That brings ad dollars.  And the worse, the better.  But there are a list of other “reasons” that I’m sure would be a counterpoint to each of the four points in the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists.

But here’s the bigger problem.  Societies run by demagogues or plagued by fanned fires don’t suffer free media for long.   And I harken back to a Saturday Night Live bit for some support.  When Sarah Palin had appeared on the October 22, 2008 airing of SNL, with her Tina Fey doppelganger, there was a segment with Ms. Palin seated comfortably in an easy chair facing and talking to the camera directly.   And she essentially said that once she and John McCain become president, there would be some changes in how a TV show like Saturday Night Live could parody cultural figures.

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.  After all, SNL is a program of humorous satire.  But there was no hint of humor, and her veiled threat of censorship sounded less like satire and more like a warning.  If Trump becomes president and if he had, instead of choosing Mike Pense, chosen Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie or even Sarah Palin, I wonder how long the sometimes, nose-high Fourth estate would continue feel invulnerable.  He has already threatened the media and the constitutional basis of a free press. A story that delights for its messiness, but raised to a sufficient temperature, can cook up some really nasty policy consequences.

So when I hear news people lament over how they wish a political story was more spectacularly shit-filled, or how they futz that a personal collapse is less compelling because the sufferer isn’t doing more to blow themselves up in front of cameras or microphones, I wonder if the American people (whoever that really is) might have a point when surveys show large swaths on both sides of the political spectrum say they don’t entirely trust the media.

I don’t mean the hard working journalists who report the facts and refuse to prognosticate or editorialize.  I mean what’s left.

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It’s Over

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Voting Booth

For 11 months, I’ve been deep in Oregon politics; calling candidates, setting up interviews with candidates, interviewing candidates, editing the interviews with candidates, posting those interviews – repeat.  I ended this project with pretty much the intention I started with.  I was sick of people complaining about the poor quality of political candidates and I wanted to see where the problem really lay.  Was it with the candidates themselves, or was it with the people who listened to them, believed them and elected them?

I interviewed almost 70 of about 300 candidates.  Some dropped out.  Many didn’t return calls.  A few agreed to be interviewed and then apparently changed their minds.  No matter.  What matters is I’ve talked with a respectable number of executive, legislative and judicial office seekers since December 2013. I’ve blogged a lot about them.  And I’ve come away with some lessons.

1.  We should be grateful and proud that our elections are decided peacefully by the ballot rather than the bullet.
2.  We should be ashamed that our elections can be essentially paid for through deceptive ads by multinational corporations that keep hammering on the public’s perceptions until they cave.  To coin a friend from Russia, “The difference between Russia and the US is that at least we know we live under a tyranny.”
3.  We should be grateful that our system allows anyone to run for office.  The diversity of the electorate is reflected in the diversity of the candidates and that’s a good thing.
4.  We should be fearful that our system allows anyone to run for office.  I talked with several people who couldn’t put a sentence together or say what they were proposing but were quick to personally berate the opposition.
5.  Politicians know this can be a game.
6.  The voters often neither know it can be a game nor know the rules of the game.
7.  Neophytes tend to talk about what they will do if they get into office to change things and how they will work with those on the other side of the aisle to fulfill those changes.
8.  Incumbents by contrast spend their time pushing the opposition away with promises of what they’ve accomplished and candy dangling of what they’ve yet to do.
9.  Many of them were sincerely grateful to be given a chance to truly be heard.
10.  Everybody intensely believes they and their tribe have the answer.
11.  Everybody intensely believes in the system.
12.  I do too.

I’ve come to believe in it because, as President Obama clearly articulated, to get change you have to hold your politician responsible.  That means you have to hound the hell out of them because that is exactly why they are there; to be your advocate.  The problem though is that everybody who wants something from that politician thinks the same thing.  So it really does come down to who has the loudest voice.  And many people think that since money = speech, mo’ money means a really big mouth.  But I’ve found that’s not always true.

I’ve found that a tiny but consistent noise, like this one, can be pretty effective in getting a politician’s attention.  That’s how politics works.  That’s the only way it can work.  Point 12 is only true if an annoyingly persistent constituent can countervail points 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 by always being somewhere in the vicinity of a politician’s ear.

No, it’s not Mr. Smith goes to Washington.  But it does keep the playing field surprisingly level.  Because although money is a big motivator for a politician to be a shill for a moneyed interest, a persistent, watchful, educated minority can make it very, very hard for them to enjoy spending it.  So if, in the end, a politician ends up doing the right thing either because they truly are good people or because they don’t want to be pegged as bad people, what’s the difference? I really don’t care.

Tonight, I was fortunate to cap a year’s worth of reporting by being one of three hosts during three hours of live election coverage.  And I’ve realized that I don’t care much about the spin, or the agenda pushing, or the mind games.  I’ve learned how to deal with that stuff.

But, to circle back to what started this post, what did I discover?  Was the problem with politics with the candidates themselves, or was it with the people who listened to them, believed them and elected them?  Was it us?

To both questions, I can only answer … yes.

I will be paying much close attention to politics from here on out.

Written by Interviewer

November 5, 2014 at 14:22

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 Callback. Sike!

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Nervous

Sometimes, it never comes.  You talk to someone and they say they can unequivocally help you.  They say they know people who can help you.  And if they can’t find anybody else, they promise they themselves will help you.  And then they don’t.  If you’re on deadline, this is the worst because you have this promise in your back pocket.  You’re assuming you’ll get what you need when you need it from this source who worked so hard to convince you that they are reliable.  They may sing their own praises all day long before they promise to help you, but not after they decide they can’t.  Afterwards, they don’t call, they don’t email, nothing.  Crickets.  They’re OK with that.  And you have to be too.

Maybe something comes up and politically, they were reminded that they were offering to speak on something way above their pay grade.  Or maybe they got cold feet or realized they weren’t the expert they thought they were.  Or maybe they just changed their mind because they remembered they hate the media and along the way decided that if they ignore you, you and their broken promise would just go away.  So what do you do?

From the beginning, you don’t believe them.  You call five other sources as soon as you hang up.  And then you call five more because you know one of them will call you back.  And you get what you need and you move on.  You forgive them, because people say a lot of things they shouldn’t say when a reporter calls and don’t say a lot of things they should say when a reporter calls.  They can’t help it.  We just have this power.

And then you forget them because you’re still on deadline.

If the source that promised to call in an hour calls in three and the story is long since done, you say thank you and hang up.  Because if they really wanted that story told and if they really wanted a voice in telling it, they would’ve called you back with something and sooner.  But if they don’t call back at all, that’s OK too because at some point in the future, they’ll have a story they desperately want told.  And you’ll be there.

Written by Interviewer

July 16, 2014 at 12:02

Good Stuff

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Last night was the last of three, live candidate forums I moderated.  Two candidates for US Congress showed.  Tuesday night, three gubernatorial candidates came.  And Monday night, eight legislative candidates (four vying for the same district) were there.  This whole process of being immersed in politics was nothing planned.

It started with me annoyed that the federal government was doing so much illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens.  So I built a website to give people more direct access to their state constitutions – http://www.stateconstitutions.us.

Then, I got the idea to interview political candidates in advance of the 2014 state elections.  In many cases, the parties anoint who they want to be the frontrunners and the smaller candidates with no money and no name recognition get no exposure from the media.  I wanted to change that and give them all a voice.  Of the 283 candidates that filed their candidacy on the Secretary of State’s website, I’ve interviewed about 40 of them since December 2013.

Those led to the idea of having debates between candidates running for different branches of government.  And come June, after the Secretary of State opens filing to third party candidates like the Greens or the Constitution Party,  I’ll probably repeat the process over for them who get even less love.

I’ve learned a lot about government, what it aspires to be and what it often is.  And that has made me both discouraged and encouraged.  Most people who want to be judges care because they know the judicial system can be intimidating.  Most people who want to be lawmakers are not greedy, self-centered whores of moneyed interests.  By contrast, they are passionate about serving their neighbors and trying to make a better world.  And most people running for governor are clear thinkers capable of making truly executive decisions that try to balance the reason of courts against the passion of the legislature.

Before this project, I would’ve dismissed politics as an impediment to people trying to conduct their day to day lives.  But now, I see it as a process that is absolutely essential to be at least aware of, if not engaged with. It is your right to not engage.  But I’ve learned that if you have that kind of apathy, other people who don’t have your best interest in mind, will engage in your name for their own benefit.  They will sponge your resources, make your decisions and they will affect your life in ways that you will only accidently discover when you day to day runs into their deaf, ubiquitous and unyielding bureaucracy.

Written by Interviewer

May 2, 2014 at 05:59

Message Control

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Sometimes, when you’re interviewing someone, their emotions are all over the place. And sometimes, that’s good. A passionate audience member wants the object of their attention to be as enthusiastic as they are about whatever it is they share whether it’s music, cooking, science or whatever. It can also make for a lively interview.

In politics however, showing emotions is part of a strategy that seems to need surgical precision to be successful. It doesn’t mean emotions don’t get shown. It means politicians understand that people want people like them and but they also don’t want people who stray too far from whatever “being like them” means emotionally.

John Dean’s “scream” at the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucauses was a perfect example. Dean and his base were fired up, but Dean was concerned over his poor finish behind John Kerry and John Edwards. His spontaneous expression of emotion in that battle cry that ended his speech to the party faithful (affected by a bout of flu and his unidirectional microphone) made him seem somehow emotionally unbalanced even to his base. Conversely, when Michael Dukakis lost to George Bush Sr. in 1988, it was because he didn’t show enough emotion when moderator Bernard Shaw asked him how he would feel if an escaped criminal raped and murdered his wife. Yes, we want our politicians to be in control of themselves, but many of his supporters thought he showed “too much” control to the point of having no emotion at all.

When interviewing someone running for office, the purpose isn’t to get them to reveal themselves emotionally. The purpose is to get them talking about why the voters should vote for them. And in the course of that conversation, the person, if they truly care about the office, the people and their own personal mission, will express emotion.

Some people express it freely. Others express it judiciously. Still others don’t express much at all. I’ve written about how listeners can detect emotion in what a speaker is saying versus how they are saying it. But face to face interviews are much more revealing in a way in that gives TV viewers an advantage over radio or print interviews.

A lot of this is old hat in light of TV shows like “Lie to Me”, but when watching someone respond to a question, you can learn as much from what they don’t do as from what they do. A person that has unchanging facial expressions, little to no body movements and little to no hand gestures is someone who has learned the fine art of personal message control. But just as too much emotion can turn off a constituency, too little with too few clues can make them wonder what’s going on inside. And for a politicians, it can be a choice between the worst of two world; either prove how sincere you are by being just a little too free with your feelings so that some people don’t take you as seriously as you wish. Or hold back everything and have people wonder if you are trustworthy.

I’m glad I just ask the questions.

Written by Interviewer

March 17, 2014 at 12:30

Political Interviews

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I am engaged in another project to bring government to the people. I am inviting all candidates for office in Oregon for 2014 to talk to me about their candidacy and their goals if they are elected or reelected.  As of this writing, I’ve talked with three and 10 or so more have shown interest.  The interviews will be either about :30 or :60 minutes long depending mostly on how long we talk.  All interviews will be posted at the KBOO FM (http://kboo.fm/betweenus) website under my podcast, “Between Us”, which is a collection of interviews I’ve done with celebrities and regular people.  They will also be posted at my interview website, Conversus (http://www.convers.us/page4.archive.html).  In both places, visitors will also be able to read and print a transcript I created of the interview.