Recently, CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Karen Ignagni, the CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a lobbying group. It was a beautiful example of a bad interview. The subject was the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and Ms. Ignagni seemed to be working very hard at being gracious and uncooperative. At the same time, Blitzer didn’t appear to be listening.
Over the years I’ve worked with a number of lawyers, military officers and politicians on their interviewing skills. There are two cardinal rules for the interviewee: Answer the question and get your talking points across. When these things don’t happen, it is very frustrating for the interviewer.
The newsmaker’s talking points are, more often than not, the reason for the interview. And even when they’re not, they should get an airing. Typically, a newsmaker will be ready with talking points and be able to get them out in an orderly fashion. Sometimes, however, interviewers have to weedle them out because the newsmaker isn’t prepared or is uncomfortable.
If the interviewer knows enough about a topic to carry on an intelligent conversation, then lack of preparation by the newsmaker isn’t a big hurdle. The interviewer can simply guide the newsmaker through it with good questions. But where the interviewer knows little or nothing about the topic and the newsmaker isn’t helping, it’s a lot better to cut the interview off quickly than it is to bore the listener with pointless chatter. One could argue that the interviewer should always know a good deal about the topic and carry the ball in all events. In an ideal world, that would be true. But sooner or later, all of us will have an interview thrown at us at the last minute with a few scribbled notes constituting all the research we’re going to get.
There are times when the comfort of the newsmaker is irrelevant – when the interviewer demands justification for something the newsmaker did or said for example. Most of the time, however, the more comfortable the newsmaker, the more productive the interview will be. And that’s the interviewer’s job. Virtually all the time, a friendly, easy manner will do it.
In the CNN example, the questions were probably prepared by somebody else and Blitzer may have gone into it cold. The downside to this is that when Ignagni started to buck his questions, Blitzer was unprepared to press her. In his defense, when Ignagni simply failed to answer a question, Blitzer asked it again. When she failed to answer it a second time, he dropped it and moved on.
It is possible that Ignagni felt she could not answer the questions Blitzer was asking because there has been so much fog surrounding Obamacare. “I don’t know,” is a perfectly acceptable answer – and it is made better if the newsmaker can explain why. In this case Ignagni could have said she didn’t know, and in fact nobody knows because things are such a mess. If she said anything like that, I didn’t hear it. Instead, she appeared to be preaching a vague company line, though nothing she said was clear. And except for asking one question twice, Blitzer never challenged her to be clear; he simply asked the questions he’d been given and closed the interview out.
I suspect an executive producer somewhere asked afterward if anyone understood what had just happened and got a bunch of blank stares.
Topic ideas, problems and solutions are always welcome. Contact me directly at Doug@newstalkradio.com.