How Not To Interview The President

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Allow me to revisit my short comment from the other day about Romania Libera’s interview with President Basescu. [Read the interview here.]  It seems that based on some questions and comments I received, it might be best if I clarify what I meant.

Yes, any interview with the president is important. What the president says is important. It is perhaps appropriate to run a transcript of his comments as if he was being deposed. But if you conduct an interview with the president and you cannot derive a headline of news from his comments, then I fear the conclusion must be that you’ve asked the wrong questions.

There must be something he is planning that will make news. Your job is to uncover what it is before it happens. You cannot do that, however, if all your questions (as they were) were essentially asking what he believes, or what he thinks about various issues.

I know no one who cares what President Basescu thinks. That is not meant as an insult. It’s not because what he thinks is not relevant, and sometimes even interesting, but because it is not what he thinks, but what he plans to do that is at issue.

He is an elected politician who has the power, given to him by the public, to do things. He is not a scholar, an author, a philosopher, a theologian, a professional thinker of any kind who fascinates us and whose very thoughts and perspectives will change the way we see the world.

He is not even Lady Gaga or Brad Pitt, who have no particular power except the influence of personality and celebrity. I might care – sometimes – what Jay-Z thinks about lowering the tax on bread. President Basescu, however, I do not. He is a public servant who is paid to do things, so I care not what he thinks, but what he plans to do about those taxes.

If you say perhaps I misunderstand, the president here doesn’t really have the power to do anything, then I suggest you ask him what he intends to try to do and how. If he doesn’t even have the power to attempt anything, then I would question whether the interview was even worth conducting.

Look at it this way: If President Basescu says he believes everybody should be happy, and thinks Romania and Moldova should have one big beer bash, and we should stop all the arms dealers, and let women run the country, and the whole world should sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya – that’s just lovely, but I don’t really care. Wake me when he says how he intends to do it. Now that will be news.

Yes, it is very hard to write a strong lede from “President Basescu said yesterday he thinks…” as opposed to “President Basescu said yesterday he will…”

Maybe that’s why there was no story and hard lede about the content of the interview. (That was my criticism in the blog posting on Monday.) Perhaps, in fact, there was no hard news to be found in all those things the president thinks.

Now, I concede that sometimes what a politician believes, or thinks, or knows, is important. Mostly if he’s not yet elected, it can be important what he believes to indicate what he might do when he takes office. What he knew and when he knew about a subject can also be important to determine on what information he acted, or if not, then why not.

But it’s the action, not the thinking, that’s ultimately of importance.  Once elected, while you can ask a politician what he believes, it’s only in the follow-up (“So what will you do?”) that the real news is made. And if they give a “no comment,” the reporter might laugh, but they never should shrug. You follow up with a question that will provoke an answer, because if the question was important enough to ask the first time, then isn’t it important enough to push for an answer?

No, I fear the saddest part is that as long as reporters here ask the politicians what they think, what they fear, what they hope, what they believe, why they’re great, and why the other guy is not – and not what they will do – the media here is failing in its role. They are more part of the game than its watchdog or critic, enabling the same tired name-calling and rhetoric and sophistry that is so destructively – and unproductively – practiced by this country’s politicians.

Finally, a suggestion: At one of the newspapers I worked for, we had a News Editor, or front-page editor, who was third in command after the Executive Editor and the Managing Editor. Everyday, just before lunch, in the middle of the newsroom, he would publicly review that day’s front page, complimenting this story or criticizing that headline. It was a delicate process, and at times very painful, but over time reporters and editors began to see what was expected and how to improve. This perhaps, I suggest, would be useful to reporters and editors here, to review what they did and to see the missed opportunities and to congratulate those who did a good job. Because good stories do happen here, just not often enough. And if journalists aren’t tough enough to take some brutal criticism, the kind they like to write about others, then they’re merely writers, not journalists, and they’re in the wrong business.

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