When interviews stop short of answers
Interrupted interviews stifle dialogue and shortchange crises that deserve attention
Back in the Seventies, long before I entered Congress and well before I worked as a special assistant to President Reagan, I interviewed hundreds of people on the air and in print during a stint as a journalist in Southern California.
Those were happy days, and in that line of work I felt obliged to allow my subjects to complete their sentences and to finish their thoughts. I was known for getting to the heart of the matter and asking the toughest questions, but always tried to be courteous. But that was another day.
In two recent media encounters it became clear to me how much times have changed.
I realize my position on cooperation with Russia to defeat radical Islam is controversial, but does that justify attack-dog journalism? In a live-stream interview I was knocked off balance when interrupted before I could finish what I was saying,
An interviewee being cut off actually undermines the passing on of useful information, as it did when I was cut off by Yahoo News’ Bianna Golodryga, who came here as a refugee from Soviet-occupied Moldova.
During the interview, she assumed I was dismissing, with the word “Baloney,” the fact that there are human rights abuses in today’s Russia. In fact, I was saying it was baloney to speak of today’s Russia and Communist China as the same in the way the two regimes treat their citizens.
That’s when her interruptions began.
She concluded, unfortunately, that my inquiry as to where she came from was to dismiss her views rather than to understand her perspective as I think one’s experiences and family remembrances can dramatically impact the views of anyone, including journalists.
The same thing happened again a few days later during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Joe Scarborough who knows me as we served together in Congress before he morphed into a television pundit expert on nearly everything began by announcing prior to our interview that I had previously denied any human rights abuse in Russia, welcomed me to the show with an unanswerable question, asking essentially: Why did the United States do nothing to stop the slaughter in Aleppo?
When I suggested that the question was based on a false premise, Joe exploded and interrupted before I could finish what I was trying to say. He began literally screaming that I was denying the slaughter of people in Aleppo which was hardly the case.
Had he not cut me off, the false premise I wanted to explain was his assertion that we as a nation had done “nothing” in the face of this slaughter.
The United States has in fact tried albeit without much success to put a halt to the violence in Syria as outlined by his other guests once Joe ended his diatribe and settled down to permit something approaching an actual conversation. Unfortunately, Joe was so outraged over my belief in cooperation rather than confrontation with Russia that it prevented a more productive exchange of ideas.
When I found myself in his position many years ago, I often interviewed guests with whom I disagreed, but didn’t believe I had the right to cut them off in midsentence. Perhaps it was naive.’ but in those days most journalists actually tried to find out what their subjects believed.
We are all horrified by the events in Syria. But an honest discussion of what might be done to stop the bloodshed and suffering is what’s needed, not temper tantrums.
Issues like this are complicated and do not lend themselves to simplistic headlines, sloganeering, and rude cable interviews. Variations of the views for which I was attacked are shared by serious thinkers from Henry Kissinger to Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock. They deserve a real hearing.
We need to talk seriously about the advantages and dangers inherent in proposals like “no-fly zones” and “safe zones,” which could lead to our shooting down Russian planes and a violent and escalating confrontation with Moscow. Such a confrontation, would in the opinion of many of us, do little to further the cause of peace or even end the conflict in Syria.
Later, one of Joe’s panelists wondered if by suggesting cooperation rather than confrontation I favored making us an “accomplice to evil.” That question must have been asked and answered in an earlier era when FDR, Truman and Churchill decided they would rather work with Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union than risk defeat by Hitler. They knew Stalin for what he was, but knew too that they had to defeat the Nazis and Japanese militarists, who were the world’s primary enemies at that time.
My old friend Joe concluded by lamenting that I was not the Dana he once knew. Sadly, Joe’s unedifying table talk was not the interview in pursuit of answers I once practiced.