Ask and Ask Again (and Again)
By Christopher Landers
Columbo knew how to ask a question.
Landers is a former AJR editorial assistant.
The interview would be over, he'd head for the door, start to put his hat on, and then pause. It was the pause that got them. As if he'd forgotten until just that moment.
"Oh, listen, just one more thing..."
Worked every time.
In the real world, though, questions go unanswered. There are great unanswered questions ("Who was Deep Throat?" for example), and there are, well, the rest.
On one randomly chosen day (September 27), at least 127 sources ranging from Chinese defense ministry officials to Elvis Costello's record label "declined to comment" on a host of issues, according to a Lexis-Nexis search. Pop princess Britney Spears reportedly threw a milkshake at photographers as she flat out "refused" to comment on whether she was pregnant, and she was joined in her refusal by the Royal Canadian Mint and 53 other sources who, one assumes, held on to their milkshakes.
But faced with silence, refusal and even flying beverages, journalists keep asking. And asking. And asking.
In August, MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews pitched the same question to author and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin 11 times, and in a 1997 exchange that may hold the record for persistence, BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman repeated his question 14 times before throwing in the towel. Matthews' question concerned allegations about John Kerry's Vietnam War service, and Paxman's was about parliamentary procedure.
Paxman later admitted to fellow BBC host Michael Parkinson that he just couldn't think of another way to kill time before the next segment.
Riveting television, to be sure, but given that the technique can be replicated by any well-trained parrot, is it good interviewing?
Howard Kurtz, media writer for the Washington Post, says repeating the question serves a purpose, but it's possible to go too far. "There is great value in asking a question again and again to make it clear that the guest is either ducking it, finessing or refusing to answer it," Kurtz says. "But after the third or fourth time, that's perfectly clear to the audience. Continuing to pound away can make the interrogator look rude, overbearing or worse."
John Sawatsky, an interview expert who is now director of talent development for ESPN, thinks the problem often lies with how--not how many times--the interviewer asks something. If we aren't getting answers, he says, we may not be asking the right questions.
"Repeating a bad question is just making things worse. You have to make sure you start out with a good question," says Sawatsky, who has led training sessions on this subject for media outlets around the world (see "The Question Man," October 2000). Asked what makes a good question, Sawatsky laughed and said it took a two-day workshop to answer that. This interviewer blundered on in ignorance.
The key to questioning is leveling the playing field, Sawatsky says: If a source thinks you aren't being fair, they won't play ball. He thinks that too many reporters ask loaded questions, an approach guaranteed to put someone on the defensive and possibly clam up.
"You have to go back to your fundamental reasons for doing the interview..is it to gather information or is it to prove a point?" he says. "Doing an interview to prove a point I don't think is a valid reason. So then why would you ask questions that you know aren't going to get answered?"
Of course, particularly for broadcast interviews, there's always the squirm factor. As Kurtz puts it, "There's no substitute for looking into the face of politicians as they are trying to finesse their way through an interview."
Sawatsky agrees, as long as--once again--the question is worth asking.
"If you have a good question and they're not answering it," he says, "repeating the question can be devastatingly effective because what it illustrates is that they're not answering."