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From the candidate to the incumbent: character, ethics and accountability

By Taylor Elmore

The keys to effective and fair candidate interviews and access are preparation, research and the ability to listen.  The willingness and ability to ask questions no one else will don’t hurt, either.

When Judy Muller, the Emmy Award-winning ABC News correspondent and faculty member of the Annenberg School for Communication, covered the Gary Hart presidential campaign in 1987, political reporters enjoyed a freedom of access unheard-of in today’s climate of candidate media management and spin-doctoring. 

“He dared (the press corps), ‘follow me (around),’” said Muller.  “And there he is, with Donna Rice on his lap, sitting on a boat called ‘Monkey Business.’ I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.” But it took a reporter asking just one question to change the climate of candidate coverage forever: “Have you been unfaithful to your wife?”

“Everyone was horrified,” said Muller.  “The question got as much coverage as the issue.” It was considered unseemly to ask; the answer was none of the public’s business, the subject not fit for mainstream journalism. 

“These things have changed dramatically,” said Muller.  “I still have that ‘ick factor’ when these things come up.” For better or for worse, questions such as these have become increasingly frequent and relevant to a candidate’s campaign, and that fact has changed the way candidates relate to reporters.

Later, when covering Paul Tsongas’ run against Bill Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Tsongas’ cancer raised delicate issues for Muller.  Doctors attending to Tsongas claimed he was fit and well, but while Clinton was dashing from one end of the country to another, Tsongas was taking naps.  Reporters on the campaign, including Muller, had to decide how to report this information. 

“You didn’t want to sound like, ‘I wonder if he’s going to die,’” Muller said, “but it’s an important issue.  Because if he’d been elected president, he would have died in office.”

It’s important to get over qualms of this nature, said Muller, because “you’re the only one there ... to ask the question.”

In the current 24/7 news cycle, information access has undergone a sea change.  The ability to ask a candidate a question about news in real time, as it happens, can sometimes give reporters an advantage over the candidates.  However, there is another effect: in order to avoid being surprised, said Muller, “the candidate becomes less accessible.” The candidates have figured out that instant information equals vulnerability, and have shored up defenses against being caught without an answer.

Randy Shandobil, political editor at KTVU, cited a maxim he learned while studying screenwriting at USC: “Show, don’t tell.” Viewers – of movies or of political coverage – become more emotionally involved when they feel they are discovering things for themselves.  If a journalist says a politician is taking a position on an issue solely for some political motive, the viewer may assume the journalist has an agenda or bias of his or her own. 

“But if somehow, you can reveal that,” Shandobil said, “I think they lock into it and it resonates more clearly.”

Shandobil showed clips of short interviews with former vice presidential candidate John Edwards and current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as an example of how to allow the candidate to reveal character under the time constraints of modern televised coverage.  Rather than feeding candidates a hodge-podge of broad questions that can easily be fended off with scripted answers, “what I try and do,” said Shandobil, “is stick on one topic, and in my three to five minutes press them on that one topic, in the hope that I’ll get something at least a little beyond what they’ve said 300 times.”

A critical skill outlined by both Muller and Shandobil is that of simply listening.  Letting the candidate speak and paying attention to what’s being said can yield tremendous results.  Sometimes, “you’re thinking about your next question while they’re still answering, and you’re not really listening,” Shandobil said. “I’ve had times where someone said something really golden, and I’ve missed the opportunity to ask a follow-up because I’ve been so nervous thinking about the next thing to ask.”

Betsey Fischer, executive producer of Meet the Press with Tim Russert, said the combination of “preparation and research is really the key” to getting compelling tape from candidates.  Lexis-Nexis and Factiva are indispensable resources for preparing for candidate interviews. 

For longer-term projects, “you can set Factiva up to email you any story that your search term appears in every day,” Fischer said, “so it’s a great way to keep track of things.” This can help the interviewer ask questions that aren’t necessarily the ones the candidate – or the candidate’s handlers – expect.  Still, that kind of access to information comes at a price.  “Lexis is more expensive,” said Fischer, “and that’s really the main difference.  With Lexis-Nexis, you actually pay by the search.”

Fischer said that they have no real scientific approach to researching stories, but that they are “constantly on the phone. I’m constantly sending (Russert) information, he’s constantly asking for information ... a lot of times it just comes together like that.”

Getting politicians on Meet the Press can be a challenge, since going on the show means “you’re coming on with the guy who’s going to hold you accountable ... It’s a constant battle.” Still, candidates are aware that “if they are confident in what they believe in, their positions ... if they go on the interview and do well, it’ll be tough, but it’ll be fair.” The reputation for toughness that can boost a politician’s credibility in the wake of a successful interview, and that fact alone makes it desirable to appear.

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