CTV's Controversial Interview with Stephane Dion

Journalism schools across Canada must be thanking CTV News and Stephane Dion this Thanksgiving.

We at theĀ University of Toronto/Centennial College joint journalism program
have spent the first month and a half of this school semester immersing ourselves in techniques of interviewing: we've discussed research, how to make the telephone call to request an interview, what to do when you get there, and how to frame question and direct the flow of the interview. We've also discussed some tips and tricks to try to get a politician "off message", and reviewed some of the ways politicians are trained to handle media interviews. As an example, we watched Nardwuar do the hip-flip with then Prime Minister Paul Martin

So it was a bonus when we were able to watch this campaign moment that Prime Minister Stephen Harper deftly handled, after several moments when he was at a complete loss.

I'm talking about how a journalist nearly flummoxed Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he was asked a question no one had ever put in the PM's briefing book: what kind of vegetable he would be? Journalism student Lauren Hummel helped us out by providing that link to the Harper Vegetable moment.

Here's the story on cbc.ca

But Harper did what seasoned politicians are trained to do: he laughed. He bought himself time. And he answered a loaded/leading question with a cute quip that turned a sticky moment into a benign, positive spin for his campaign.

So when Liberal leader Stephane Dion had his moment in the same awkward position -- this time, during that now infamous interview with ATV News' Steve Murphy Thursday October 9, 2008, our class Intro to News Reporting spent a good hour in discussion the next morning, Friday, dissecting the interview, and its ramifications.

Out of 13 students, 8 thought the wording of the question was confusing. Five didn't. One student who's French is excellent, agreed it was very convoluted in how the first attempt was worded. Many thought the question was confusion, a combination of past and present tenses and awkwardly juxtaposed.

Here's a transcript courtesy of the Toronto Star:

CTV: Mr. Dion, the economy is now the issue on the campaign, and on that issue you've said that today that Harper has done nothing to put Canadians' mind at ease and offers no vision for the country. You have to act now, you say; doing nothing is not an option. If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done.

SD: If I had been prime minister two-and-a-half years ago?

CTV: If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years.

SD: If I am elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, it's what you are suggesting?

CTV: No, I am saying if you were hypothetically prime minister today ...

SD: Today.

CTV: ... What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?

SD: I would start the 30-50 plan that we want to start the moment we have a Liberal government. And the 30-50 plan, in fact the plan for the first 80 days, I should say, the plan for the first 80 days once you have a Liberal government. Can we start again?

CTV: Do you want to?

SD: Sure.

Most of the class agreed that after the question was asked a second time, the error was Dion's. Why? Because as a politician, he has been trained to be able to handle any question, no matter how confusing. If it had the words "economy" and "Prime Minister" he should have been able to spin it to his own message.

As in, "I'm glad you asked what I would do" and then go from there to his prepared message.

The class said it was a huge sign of weakness as a public figure, although one student said she felt sympathy and empathy towards Dion, because it showed he is human, and bumbles just like most people.

Eleven students out of 14 (one more had come in to class by then) agreed it was a bad redirect. We have watched David Letterman with Paris Hilton, and Larry King with Celine Dion and with Paris Hilton. Both did masterful redirects, which is when you ask the same question in a different way, in order to try to communicate better with the guest, and to get an answer to a question the guest either didn't or couldn't answer. One student said there was no reason to redirect, since the question was clear.

Are there different rules for interviewing politicians vs. ordinary people? Yes, we agreed, because public figures put themselves out in the public and invite scrutiny, and are trained with p.r. professionals how to handle any kind of interview situation: they know how to buy time, make a joke, to welcome dead air as the interviewer might jump in to save you, etc. Dion messed up.

As for the ethics of airing the uncut interview...

We read the CTV News Policy Guide. It says clearly that interviews are to be unrehearsed and spontaneous.

That all interviews can be edited. That no questions are to be given in advance, in detail, except in rare cases -- if it's a technical nature, or if the guest is so newsworthy (eg. Osama Bin Laden) that you won't get the interview unless they are not asked certain questions.

All the students agreed that if the Liberals, as rumour has it, threatened CTV if they showed the uncut version, they would have put the story on air as is, two seconds later.

Also, the students discussed the ethics of saying you would not air the fumbles, but then going back on your word.

So on this Thanksgiving weekend, thank you to Stephane Dion and CTV for giving us a great topic for discussion of real world interviewing techniques live from the campaign trail!

Thanks to Anthony Geremia for the notes about the class discussions.

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