January 19, 2004
That's not what I asked

Great article in the Columbia Journalism Review on the fine art of avoiding the question. It sheds quite a bit of light on why we so seldom get any useful information from those who talk to the press on a regular basis. Here's an example:

Some media trainers counsel clients not to answer the question that’s asked, but instead to give a response that fits with the message they plan to deliver. Others insist that’s deceptive and urge clients to at least acknowledge or “satisfy” the question and then steer or bridge to their messages. Being asked if the sky is blue and answering that the grass is green is out of vogue, they say.

“You don’t have to say what you don’t want to say. But you must acknowledge the question,” says Davia Temin, president of Temin and Company, a strategic-marketing and crisis-management firm. Saying “no comment,” though, is not advised since it’s seen as an admission of guilt. Nevertheless, says the longtime New York p.r. executive Richard Weiner: “There are twenty-seven different ways to avoid the question and twenty-seven ways to say no comment.”

When guests don’t want to answer, they use phrases such as: That’s such a complex subject . . . Your question is not relevant . . . You bring up an interesting point, but before I discuss it, I want to talk about . . . . Such dodges serve as a springboard to the message the guest wants to send. On Good Morning America in November Charles Gibson asked General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if he had honestly expected so many soldiers to be in harm’s way more than six months after hostilities officially ended. Myers responded not with a yes or no, but with: “You know, the Iraqi situation was complex from the start. I think we knew it was going to be very, very tough. And we’ve got to take the fight to them.” The rest of his answer touched on Iraqis helping the U.S., intelligence, and a newly found weapons cache — a classic example of the satisfy-and-steer technique drummed into every person who undergoes media training.

Maybe it's just me, but just once I'd love to see an interviewer follow up a non-answer like that with "So you're saying the answer is no, you didn't expect that", just to see what would happen. I'm not holding my breath for it, and the article gives several reasons why.

Check it out. Via DIYMedia.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 19, 2004 to Other punditry | TrackBack

All of this makes me appreciate even more one of my all-time favorite moments in television journalism. BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman was questioning Michael Howard (this was in 1997, long before Howard became leader of the Conservatives). When Howard tried to evade an embarassing question, Paxman proceeded to pose the same question 14 times in a row, as Howard squirmed and sweated. No matter what else Paxman accomplishes in his lifetime, this interview will lead his obituary.

Posted by: JohnL on January 22, 2004 10:40 AM