I’ve posted a great YouTube video below that shows in excruciating detail how to deal with a hostile interrogator in the media. The only thing is that this interrogator wasn’t hostile; she was very nice, just not very smart.
I was once told by Reid Buckley (William F. Buckley, Jr’s younger brother and a famous debater in his own right) that the most potent force one has in dealing with a hostile interrogator on TV or radio is silence. Silence is death to them. Silence makes them keep on jibbering and end up looking the fool. But most people fall into the trap of the much more experienced talking heads and end up looking the fools themselves. In the clip below, you can see what I mean about the silence and one word answers. Watch the poor woman conducting the interview struggle.
MD and I have been on many, many TV and radio shows, and what we’ve learned from it all (plus from talking to a lot of people in the biz) is that it’s all entertainment, pure and simple. Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, Chris Matthews, all of them, are entertainers. If their shows aren’t entertaining, they lose ratings, and they ultimately go off the air. Many people think of these folks as hard news people, but they’re not, they’re entertainers. So they’ve got to be entertaining. And the way most of them are entertaining – especially the Sean Hannity types – is by attacking their guests.
Most guests who go on these shows are experts of some kind and they know their stuff, so they figure they can hold their own with O’Reilly, Hannity or any of the rest because the expert knows that he/she knows way more than the interviewer about the subject in which the experts are expert. What the experts don’t count on, though, when they walk into the lairs of O’Reilly, Hannity, Matthews et al are that they are experts in doing live TV and in savaging guests whose opinions they don’t like. And the guests pay the price for their hubris.
The poor expert – who is used to refined academic debate – is devoured alive and made to look the ill-prepared fool despite having incomparably more knowledge of the subject in question than does the interviewer.
One has to be prepared.
The one time I was on the O’Reilly Factor I was prepared. It was kind of a weird experience, unlike any other TV I’ve done. I was in a Fox affiliate studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico all mic’d up and ready to go. I was setting at a desk staring at nothing while people milled around in the studio. All of a sudden this whiny, whiny voice (that I didn’t recognize) comes into my earpiece saying: “Hey, Doc, it’s Bill O’Reilly. I’m going to start out asking you about…(whatever it was; I don’t specifically remember), then you give me your answer, then we’ll bat it around a little. I’ll be back in a minute.” (I’ve listened to Bill O’Reilly a thousand times since then with my eyes shut, but he still never sounds as whiny as he did when his voice was suddenly in my ear that day.)
Pretty soon, here he comes and we’re on the air. Now I’ve been told that O’Reilly can see the people he interviews while he interviews them so that he can react to what they’re saying, while those being interviewed don’t have that option. I don’t know if he could see me or not, but I definitely could not see him. There was a monitor to my right, but I worked not to look at it. (You can see inexperienced people on TV looking to their left or right during one of O’Reilly’s interviews because they’re looking at a monitor to see the show in progress. The folks at home don’t know that’s what they’re doing – the folks at home assume the interviewee can see O’Reilly – and it looks like they’re being shifty eyed.) I had to stare directly ahead into the camera as I answered the questions coming in through my earpiece.
I knew I was going to be on his show so I watched all the episodes I could of it before my turn came. I realized early on that Bill is a big fan of himself and of his own books. In fact, I think he’s prouder of his books than anything else because he refers to them constantly. I got a copy of his most recent book, read it, and had a few pithy remarks under my belt in case things took a turn for the worse for me. They didn’t ever go bad, but I did slip in a comment, which I’m sure mollified him (it wasn’t really a hostile interview, but I’m sure that many people who go on the show don’t think it’s going to be hostile until he turns on them, so one never knows) and kept things moving along without my getting attacked. Although I know much, much more about nutrition than O’Reilly will ever know, I’m smart enough to know that he is a pro at making people look bad irrespective of how smart they are, so I didn’t want to give him the chance. Thus, I did my homework.
Now take a look at the clip at the bottom. In this video the interviewer is totally benign. The interviewee is the winner of a national spelling bee. I’m sure the interviewer figured this would be a piece of fluff, but instead she walked into a buzz saw. The kid being interviewed obviously has Asperger’s syndrome: he’s incredibly intelligent, but can’t really abstract well. He is totally concrete in his thinking. The interviewer is used to throwing out open ended questions and let the interviewees babble on: in this case she got yeses and nos. Which is another good example of what not to do on an interview if you ever want to get asked back. Don’t answer a yes or no question with a yes or a no: ELABORATE. That’s what the interviewer is giving you the opportunity to do.
(What I mean by this kid’s being concrete in his thinking is when the interviewer asks him what his mom said when he won. I’m sure that his mother had a lot to say to him after he won, but right at the moment he won, he was on stage and his mother was in the audience. But the question wasn’t the more precise: What did your mom say to you when she first saw you after you won? The question was the more societally normal: What did your mom say when you won? Watch and listen to his answer. This lack of ability to abstract from what is an imprecise, but commonly structured question is pretty common with Asperger kids.)
Watching this video you can see what happens to the composure of the interviewer when someone doesn’t follow the expected norm. She is desperate to salvage the spot without looking like a total moron, which she ends up doing anyway. You may be wondering why she doesn’t just abort, thank the kid, and move on. Because these shows are entertainment, they are precisely scheduled. Whoever is going on next may not be set up, there is nowhere to go, which is why silence is so deadly. Another thing this spot shows is just how long three minutes can be on live TV. The first time I was told that I had three and a half minutes on a big show, I was totally disappointed. The person setting up the interview told me that that was a huge amount of time. When I was on it seemed to pass in a flash, but as you can see, it can be be an eternity if it’s going badly.
So, here it is. The innocent interviewer thinking she’s going to do a feel-good piece. The interviewee who is bright as all get out, but totally unimpressed with the interviewer and the situation. And who can see no shades of gray: only black and white. The two are on a collision course that I’m sure left the interviewer (who did as good a job as she could under the circumstances) drenched with sweat and running for her Xanax as soon as she could get off the set.
Enjoy and learn.[youtube id=”z4hLS01uscY”]
How to deal with the media