Monday, October 10, 2005

Why the American press has no Carole Colemans

In 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review assessed the state of the interview and found it, well, wanting. In her aptly titled article, "Answer the &$%#* Question!," author Trudy Lieberman asserts that those people from whom journalists might attempt to elicit real information have all been media-trained to avoid questions they don't like and steer the interview to the topics they do want to discuss. Lieberman says,

When interviewees twist an interview to fit their agenda, they are in effect warning the questioner what to avoid and signaling how they want to structure the questions.
Lieberman charges that American journalists play the game along with the media-savvy interviewees when they fail to ask the hard questions or follow up the lame, off-topic answers they receive. Late in the article, Lieberman concludes:

[I]n my examination of some fifty news transcripts, sharp questioning is unusual, raising the larger question of what the audience takes away when journalism appears to be little more than disguised public relations. Does the audience see through the culture of caution and obfuscation that permeates the news business? When TV guests practice question evasion, does the audience think twice about their credibility? Does the public see through polished answers and the platitudinous comments? Does it ask where the real meat and potatoes are?

Such questions bring up others: What are journalists for? Are they to analyze and interpret the news and arbitrate conflicting opinion for the public, or are they to act as mere carriers of other people’s messages?
Last year, Carole Coleman, an Irish "pit bull" with a gentle brogue, interviewed George Bush (an interview not aired in the US as far as I can tell) -- and for real, something he's not used to. In doing so, she reminded us that not all journalists are "mere carriers." At least some non-American journalists still remember how it used to be done.

Read Lieberman's article and the categories of media obfuscation that interviewees deploy, then compare them to the Coleman/Bush interview. Repeatedly we see Bush hard at work "taking control," "dodging the question," "telling a story," "spreading the word," "answering the easy parts," and "pitching platitudes." Only he doesn't exactly succeed because Coleman persistently interrupts him, reiterates her questions, and follows up. For this, many critics (read the comments) and the Bushies themselves deem her rude.

Here resides an excerpt from Coleman's upcoming book in which she recounts the hard-hitting interview that made Bush squirm and smirk and stutter and led to this post-interview exchange between Coleman and a White House press secretary (MC):

“You were given an opportunity to interview the leader of the free world and you blew it,” she began.

I was beginning to feel as if I might be dreaming. I had naively believed the American president was referred to as the “leader of the free world” only in an unofficial tongue-in-cheek sort of way by outsiders, and not among his closest staff.

“You were more vicious than any of the White House press corps or even some of them up on Capitol Hill . . .The president leads the interview,” she said.

“I don’t agree,” I replied, my initial worry now turning to frustration. “It’s the journalist’s job to lead the interview.”

It was suggested that perhaps I could edit the tapes to take out the interruptions, but I made it clear that this would not be possible.

As the conversation progressed, I learnt that I might find it difficult to secure further co-operation from the White House. [...]

Clearly the White House had thought they would be dealing with an Irish “colleen” bowled over by the opportunity to interview the Bushes. If anyone there had done their research on RTE’s interviewing techniques, they might have known better.

MC also indicated that she would be contacting the Irish Embassy in Washington — in other words, an official complaint from Washington to Dublin.

I don’t know how we are going to repair this relationship but have a safe trip back to Ireland,” MC concluded.
A request for real answers = international crisis? Fortunately the White House whining amounted to just that, whining.

Carole Coleman is my new hero. Lately SOME members of the US press have been following her lead, but more need to continuously (not just occasionally) ask hardball questions as did Coleman -- and more importantly, perhaps, press for real answers, as did Coleman. Trudy Lieberman's concerns about audience perception are unfortunately valid, as we daily suffer the ugly results of having a misled, misinformed public.

(To give proper credit, the information on the Coleman saga comes to me from The Green Knight, through Shakespeare's Sister. At The Green Knight's site is a link that'll take you to see the video of the interview, although, sadly, not of the post-interview smarminess that Coleman describes. Seeing that would have been downright fun.)

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