Tips for Jake Tapper and other TV interviewers

Let me finish! Or, How to confront a liar, and other tips for TV hosts

During a contentious 13-minute interview on January 7, 2018, CNN’s Jake Tapper and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller spent so much time talking over each other that Tapper finally halted the conversation altogether.

Miller (left), Tapper: Would you be offended if...? (Photo via CNN.com.)

Tapper wanted to ask Miller about the allegations of chaos raised in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Instead of addressing Tapper’s questions, Miller went off on tangents about Trump’s brilliance (“a self-made billionaire who revolutionized reality TV and changed the course of politics”) and CNN’s animus (“You have 24 hours of anti-Trump hysterical coverage on this network”).

When Tapper accused Miller of filibustering, Miller replied, “Why don’t you just give me three minutes to tell you the truth about the Donald Trump that I know?”

“Because it’s my show and I don’t want to do that,” Tapper answered.

Finally, Tapper declared: “I get it — there is one viewer that you care about right now and you’re being obsequious, you’re being a factotum in order to please him. And I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time. Thank you.” (To watch the entire interview, click here.)

Anderson Cooper’s panels

As any cable-news junkie can attest, this bizarre exchange was hardly unique. Ever since the advent of Meet the Press and Face the Nation more than 60 years ago, most TV news operations have assumed that the most exciting journalism involves mano a mano combat between elusive politicians and fearless, well-prepared interviewers capable of nailing lies and evasions on the spot. But in practice, many of these interviews deteriorate into shout-a-thons where nobody gets to complete a thought, much less score a point. With Anderson Cooper’s panel “discussions” on CNN, often you have six people talking at once. Stimulating TV it isn’t.

Is there a more enlightening way to handle these televised confrontations? As a print journalist, I’m nowhere near as fast on my feet as, say, George Stephanopoulos, Chris Cuomo, or Rachel Maddow. But I can’t help thinking that three interviewing techniques I’ve used in my work might better serve these celebrity hosts, not to mention their audiences.

Consider:

Charlie Rose’s method

Charlie Rose might be on the wrong side of workplace behavior, but during his career he got at least a couple of things right. Take, for instance, this interviewing method.

1) Really listen to your subject, instead of simply waiting for a chance to reply. And instead of arguing, summarize your subject’s remarks. If, for example, Kellyanne Conway deflects your question by reminding you that Trump won the election, reply, “You feel Trump deserves respect because he won the election.” If Stephen Miller attacks the media for anti-Trump bias, say, “You feel Donald Trump doesn’t get the credit he deserves.” If Anthony Scaramucci insists that Michael Wolff’s portrait of chaos in the White House is a fiction, say, “You feel the Trump White House is running very smoothly.” Then sit back and let your subject reply.

That reply may surprise you — and may even score your point better than you could do.

In my journalistic experience, everybody wants to talk and nobody wants to listen. So, if you’re the exception who’s willing to listen, people will open up and reveal secret hopes, dreams, and frustrations they wouldn’t tell their own families, even if they know they’re on national TV. Instead of demolishing them with your dazzling words, let them hang themselves with their own.

2) On matters of public policy — say, the wisdom of tax cuts or immigration or climate control — pose this key question: “Is it possible you could be wrong?” If the subject says no, in effect she claims infallibility and thus exposes herself as irrational. If she says yes, she effectively acknowledges that other viewpoints deserve a hearing.

I’ve used this obvious question many times. I’m astonished that TV hosts rarely do.

Confronting a lie

3) On factual matters, never call someone a liar. Use a gentler locution. If Sean Spicer says Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history; if Trump denies that he ever groped women; if Senators David Perdue and Tom Cotton issue a joint statement saying they do not recall Trump’s reference to “shithole countries” at a meeting they attended, ask, “Would you be offended if I said I don’t believe you?”

I learned this ploy more than half a century ago from my very first boss: Tom Witherspoon, editor of the Commercial-Review in Portland, Indiana. It’s a harmless method for disarming dissemblers. When you frame the question that way, it’s amazing how often people will concede that maybe they’ve misspoken. Try it yourself some time; it really works — although it probably wouldn’t, I grant you, with Donald Trump.

Our readers respond

Ann C. Davidson

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on January 20, 2018

My Dad used to run an antique store here in Philadelphia, and once spent a long afternoon with Oriana Fallaci, who walked into his store to do some browsing. Fallaci, a great journalist who died in September 2006, used many of the techniques you describe here, and could get her subjects to say things they never thought they would say. (Her 1972 interview with Henry Kissinger was later recalled by him as his "most disastrous decision.") My Dad, who could be a very good listener, told me about her visit later; it was one of the most memorable afternoons of his life. I don't remember now all of what he told me. But, knowing my Dad, I suspect both of them got a lot from the encounter. I do remember he was totally in awe of her intellect, and her personal courage.

Author's Response

Agreed: Fallaci was the gold standard of interviewers: well-prepared, passionate, and posessed of a point of view. Her interviews qualified as genuinely dramatic conflicts. But of course she didn't practice her craft on TV.

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