Thursday, August 18, 2011

Walk-off, Homer

Despite the attention I've paid to Christine O'Donnell since she rose to notoriety 11 months ago, it's hard to overstate how insubstantial and inept she is. Politically she's like a gnat that's become separated from the swarm -- annoying and persistent, yet incapable of accomplishing anything of consequence.

Yesterday's performance is but the latest evidence.

O'Donnell's fans will agree with her claim that Piers Morgan's questioning was rude, typical of the dreaded Gotcha Lamestream Media. That perspective demonstrates three things: immaturity; a colossal ignorance of the role of a free press; and personal neuroses that likely include paranoia, or at least a raging persecution complex.

Together, they go a long way toward explaining some folks' attraction to an immature and clearly neurotic 41-year-old woman for whom persecution (so perceived) is a calling card.

As certain as I am of my armchair psychoanalysis, I'm veering out of my lane here. I do know a thing or two, however, about working with the news and entertainment media.

First of all, an interviewer is under no legal, moral or ethical obligation to address only topics that the interviewee wants to talk about. Yesterday O'Donnell showed her misconceptions (and her ass):
"Well, don't you think as a host, if I say this is what I want to talk about, that's what we should address?"
Any host who limits his questioning to agreed-upon topics is complicit in his guest's propaganda -- only amateurs, hacks and shills do that. They insult our constitutional right to a free and independent press.

See, there are no "gotcha questions" -- there are only questions that the subject doesn't want to answer (or hasn't prepared to answer).

We needn't look far to find an example of how to navigate a tough interview. Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina, appeared live on Piers Morgan Tonight just two days before the O'Donnell debacle. I make no judgments about Sanford's marital infidelity, political ideology or religious faith, but during this minefield of an interview he conducted himself with grace and poise.

Second, when a public figure emerges after a long absence to do a round of interviews, everyone knows that they're promoting something -- a TV show, a CD, a tour or, in the case of Christine O'Donnell, a book. The trick, for an interview subject, is to make the viewer forget the self-serving promotion angle.

I always advise my spokespersons to focus on being poised and appealing, answer the questions and let the interviewer bring up the product. O'Donnell took the opposite approach:
"As I admit in the book..."
"As I, again, painstakingly detail in the book..."
"As I write in the book..."
"I wrote this book..."
"I address it in the book."
"Let's get the conversation back to the book."
"I'm here to talk about the book."
"What I'm trying to do is to promote a book."
In all, she reminded us about her new book 16 times -- and that in an abbreviated interview, for cryin' out loud. It was the only topic she was prepared to talk about, so she came off as a clumsy huckster.

Making my third and last point will require going back to the early part of yesterday's interview, before the conversation got contentious. Morgan had just played the infamous "I'm not a witch" campaign ad, calling it "creepy." O'Donnell, justifiably chagrined, admitted that the spot was a mistake:
"I listened to the so-called experts who had been losing election after election...listen to your gut...the experts aren't always experts."
Later in the interview, when the going got tough, we saw her glancing off-camera to her left -- either her "gut" was over on the other side of the studio or, more likely, she was taking cues from an "expert."

Shortly after that, she again looked off-camera and said,
"OK. I'm being pulled away."
Pulled by what, her gut? Apparently she's hired another expert who's as clueless as she is, one who willfully embarrassed their client.

A successful interview can pay big dividends in publicity -- but a good interview is, more than anything else, a test. As consumers of news media, that's what we should demand -- the tougher, the better.

We should praise media for administering those tests, recognize public figures who pass them and quickly write off whiny weaklings like Christine O'Donnell.