The voice on the other end of the phone was very irritated with one of my competitors. The reporter was producing a story about a government worker who had some issues in his personnel file — some citizen complaints, some reprimands. The caller was a friend of mine and a friend of the worker.
The reporter is trying to trick him into an on-camera interview– claiming the interview would be about his reinstatement. It’s a set-up to ambush him about all the other stuff in his file.
It’s bullshit! The reporter is lying in order to get an interview.
I was sympathetic to the argument. I’m not a fan of smarmy reporter behavior.
But I was torn. I can understand why folks would expect reporters to be completely up-front about their intentions when approaching subjects for interviews. Reporters demand the truth from newsmakers. If we aren’t completely truthful ourselves, then we’re hypocrites. If we’re willing to shade our own honesty, then we deserve our rankings of distrust among car salesmen and members of Congress.
On the other hand, it’s a really lousy way to get interviews with people who’d prefer to sidestep the truth.
There’s no doubt that subjecting scoundrels to our questioning is part of our job. If we don’t do it, then we fail to hold the powerful accountable. Not to mention, the public expects to see deserving people squirm under uncomfortable questioning. It’s part of the theater of TV news, as perfected by 60 Minutes.
But how do you get them in front of a camera to ask those questions?
You have to be honest. Put all your cards on the table, I hear you saying. In a perfect world, sure. But it’s not realistic.
Pitching interviews with “targets” of stories is an age-old challenge. You have to phrase your pitch honestly, but you don’t have to include every detail. Earlier this year at the state capitol, I approached lawmakers about their thoughts on public financing of a new football stadium. I knew that some of them had taken free Falcons tickets from the Georgia World Congress Center, and asked them about that too. The latter topic was a legitimate line of inquiry honestly related to the initial pitch.
After they agreed to the interview, I told them I also intended to ask them about the tickets. It was a way to fully state my intentions without scaring them off, giving them a moment or two to frame an answer to a potentially uncomfortable question.
Public servants are fair game for such stuff. For that matter, so is any newsmaker who has some ‘splaining to do.
I had no good answer for my caller. It sounded like my competitor was playing by the rules — broadly stating the topic of the desired interview, while keeping key details under wraps until the right moment.
It may not help our poll numbers. But it helps us do our jobs.