Is this a good post, are you already familiar with these methods and if so did you learn anything new and finally if you didn't did you expect to?
May 10, 2004 2:07 PM   Subscribe

The Power of Good Questions - what the White House press corps could learn from the methods of interviewing mastermind John Sawatsky.
posted by mr.marx (14 comments total)
I hope any journalists here read this or at least that anyone who knows any journalists forwards this link. The only problem is that there aren't likely to be many Presidential press conferences in the coming months to test the theory.
posted by donfactor at 2:35 PM on May 10, 2004

If the press corps would just "soften up" the recipients of their questions beforehand, perhaps better answers would come out.
posted by H. Roark at 2:51 PM on May 10, 2004

I forgot to say in the FPP that Sawatsky has a guru status here in Sweden. Since his first visits in the late 90's he has influenced many of our top political reporters deeply (and they admit it).
I attended one of his lectures when at journo school, and it blew my mind.
Googling him though, it seems his methods are not as well known worldwide as I thought they where, a large percentage of the search results are Swedish. I honestly don't know why.
posted by mr.marx at 2:52 PM on May 10, 2004

It doesn't really matter what technique the reporter uses, politicians have become quite good lately at the "Answer the unasked" technique. Someone will ask a question, then the answerer will ask a question to him/herself, and answer their own question. Rumsfeld does it all the time.

Or, maybe this would make a difference. There's a possibility I'm just a cynical bastard.
posted by graventy at 5:03 PM on May 10, 2004

The journalists on the White House circuit are a bunch of cynical status-seekers, with no real interest in getting the President to answer tough questions. They just want to keep their employers' media empires running smoothly and to guarantee the flow of perks and recognition ("hey, the Preznit gave me a nickname!"), which they think justifies their grubby existence. Journalism 101? Most of these guys wouldn't recognise a good, open-ended question if it hit them between the eyes.

The level of political debate in the US is abysmal. The President's play-acting, whereby he pretends to be even dumber than he really is, is successful in bringing the other players (those pretending to be journalists) down to his own chosen level of playground inanity.

posted by cbrody at 5:37 PM on May 10, 2004

His methodology is very Tao. It's seems you're the yin to the interviewee's yang. And the dropping of the ego "must get answer to this exact question" is very Zen.
I like it.
posted by Blue Stone at 6:07 PM on May 10, 2004

Thanks for the links - they're good.
I often wish for better questions from Australian journalists and always for better answers from our politicians.
posted by atom71 at 8:22 PM on May 10, 2004

I can see how this would apply more to journalistic interviewing and less to information gathering for promotional/marketing writing. Usually, though, no method can save you in music journalism, wherein conversations with folks like Robyn Hitchcocks are truly a rare treat to be savored...
posted by micropublishery at 8:41 PM on May 10, 2004

I took a class at the University of Oregon on Journalistic Interview - the Sawatsky method was the central focus of the class. I find his method works best for "hardball" interviews - stuff like political stories on candidates and budgets, PR people who can usually dance their way around journalists' questions, etc. The weakness of his method is by creating journalists that are "windows" into the subject of the article, it takes much of the personality out of the person doing the reporting. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially with the toughie interviews, but in soft features and stories where you have an everyday interaction with someone, (such as a regular beat) the method can dehumanize the person doing the reporting.

That all being said, I kick myself every time I watch Larry King Live or other TV Q & As. Those reporters spend too much time listening to their own talking and don't shut up to hear what the other person is saying.
posted by Happydaz at 8:43 PM on May 10, 2004

At the time, I thought this (Jeremy Paxman's interview of Tony Blair pre-Iraq war) was a pretty good grilling. Admittedly, it didn't change the course of events but still. In comparison, the White House press corps - the only real US political interviewing I ever watch here in the UK - seems to be entirely constituted of cringing sychophants. It really is exceptionally irritating when a man with such heavy responsibilities is not forced to answer a question without waffle, or hackneyed, button-pushing phrases. This, not because I particularly loath President Bush; rather because I can't stand seeing political journos - wherever they work - fail in their responsibilities as the foremost agents of public oversight. Get your teeth in.
posted by pots at 9:38 PM on May 10, 2004

Those reporters spend too much time listening to their own talking and don't shut up to hear what the other person is saying.

and unfortunately the educated audience is reduced to listening for the nuance of what isn't said rather than what is... to discern the what they might from a given "answer".

thanks for the excellent link mr. marx.
posted by specialk420 at 12:57 AM on May 11, 2004

Great link! Thanks!

Unfortunately it is too late for the White Wash House press corpse.
Other than Helen Thomas, of course.

She's tougher than leather and worth her weight in gold.

What cbrody said. Corporate owns the White Wash House AND the whores in their media circus.
posted by nofundy at 8:13 AM on May 11, 2004

I’m well aware that it’s fashionable to criticize the Washington press corps for its failure to put the president on the spot. Like most journalists, I’m troubled by the public’s cynical view of my profession, that we care more about ourselves than the stories we write, that we’re inept and – laughably – that we’re only interested in “keeping our owners’ media empires running smoothly.”
The fact is, nearly every single news event that you care about (recently, the war and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners) was reported to you by the very people you so caustically dismiss as tools of the Bush administration.
Read Seymour Hersch, and watch Dan Rather, then tell me they don't know how to ask questions.

And then read the transcript of Bush’s press conference on April 13, specifically the first four questions. (By the way, many of the questions begin with the word “what” – a tactic that Sawatsky suggests.):
1. Polls show that support for your policy is declining and that fewer than half Americans now support it. What does that say to you and how do you answer the Vietnam comparison?
2. What's your best prediction on how long U.S. troops will have to be in Iraq?
3. How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong? And how do you answer your opponents, who say that you took this nation to war on the basis of what have turned out to be a series a false premises?
4. Two-and-a-half years later, do you feel any sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?
Then tell me:
A. What one other question would you have asked?
B. What one question would you have replaced?

Just one other note: you can't be serious about turning to the pointy heads at the Poynter Institute for advice on news reporting.
posted by sixpack at 11:13 AM on May 11, 2004

The weakness of his method is by creating journalists that are "windows" into the subject of the article, it takes much of the personality out of the person doing the reporting. ... the method can dehumanize the person doing the reporting

This summarizes much of what I dislike about current reporting. I don't give a flying fuck about the personality of the person doing the reporting, and I think every second and brain cell spent on promulgating that personality is a second and brain cell taken away from what I'm interested in: what happened and why. I recognize it's just part of the celebrification of every single thing in American culture, but we were better off when what we cared about in reporters (not to mention athletes and politicians) was how well they did their job.
posted by languagehat at 3:55 PM on May 11, 2004

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