Why Jonathan Swan’s Interview With President Trump Is So Good
He did the work. It’s that simple.
Indulge me for a second. Because I want to start today with a little story about myself. I promise it’s not a brag, and it’ll soon become clear to you why I’m wrapping it in.
Years ago, I was headed for an interview for my first real “big” TV news job. Not long out of college. As I sat on the plane bound for Atlanta (where CNN was still officially headquartered in those days), the newspaper I had with me fell open to the business section. “Should I take a quick look at what the Dow’s doing?”, I asked myself. And quietly chuckled at the thought anyone might ask me about that in the course of the interview.
When I arrived I was whisked into the office of a senior executive and on- air personality, fully expecting to get peppered with questions like “why do you want to work here?” And “what are your strengths and weaknesses”? And maybe even “what in your view are the most interesting stories out there today?”
Instead, he barraged me with questions like: “what are the names of the U.S. aircraft carriers currently in the Pacific?” And “who is the President of Argentina?” And “give me a definition of the economic term ‘inflation’”.
This grilling went on for hours. (About the only question I did get right was: “what’s the Dow doing?”) And very early into it I’d already realized he was just toying with me and I was not going to get the job. (I was offered a lower-level job though, and within a few years I’d worked myself up to be this same person’s Executive Producer.)
Finally, my interviewer had to get ready for his show. So he asked me one last question: “do you know why I’ve been asking you all these questions?”
He continued: “They don’t teach you this in journalism school” (I hadn’t been to journalism school, but never mind), “but there are three things you need to know about being a journalist”:
1. You need to know more about more things that are going on in the world than anybody else in any other job. You need to make yourself know more than anybody you will ever interview, even if they are experts on a subject and you’re not, otherwise you’ll never know if they are full of BS.
2. Always have confidence in your assertions. Know your facts backward and forwards and make sure they are from unimpeachable sources. You can have a notepad to help you with questions, but if you start fumbling around looking for figures and facts you look like an idiot. You’ve got to walk in locked down and ready to go.
3. A good interview subject will challenge you before you get a chance to challenge them. You get thrown by this; you’re finished.
Ironically, the person who gave me all this advice about being a good journalist is now one of Trump’s most unquestioning enablers in the media, but that doesn’t mean the advice isn’t valid.
And I’d add one more:
4. An interview should be a real conversation. Sure, sometimes there’s an element of combativeness to it, and there are almost always ulterior motives. The interviewer is almost always looking to get the interviewee to tell something they don’t want to tell, or at least some new nugget that can enhance public discourse. The interview subject will almost always be looking to amplify a message or belief. But still, none of that should get in the way of having a real, actual discussion as you would with anyone in the real world. And approaching it as a real conversation is often more successful ultimately than viewing it as a battle of wits because it’s disarming.
I’m not saying any of that is the secret to anything, just that watching the Jonathan Swan interview, including Trump’s preemptive challenge, masterfully parried, reminded me of those days and that lesson.
And the force of that interview — to me at least — comes from putting in the work in the way it was outlined to me years ago.
Of course, a lot of other people are talking and writing today about why the Axios reporter’s interview with the President was so effective when few others have been.
One suggests Swan succeeded because he slowed things down. Another says it was simply “one of the few opportunities for a non-sycophant to interview the president”. And yes, technique and approach had something to do with it. Assuming the questions were presented largely in the same order they were asked, Swan didn’t start off with anything highly confrontational. Instead, a rather neutral question about “positive thinking”. Which allowed Trump to bloviate and sit there and make assertions, while Swan for a moment just acted like a potted plant. But there was a method to this, because then: ba-bam!
Still, Swan’s success in drawing out the President and confronting him mostly had to do with being prepared, and ready on the spot. Just like my journalistic guru had advised all those years ago. And he showed that if you can challenge forcefully, real-time, you don’t need to go back and do fact-checking. And that’s the real success of it.
And at least part of the reason this type of interview doesn’t happen too often is that fact-checking has become too much of a crutch for media. The President says something. He isn’t challenged on the spot. But he’s fact-checked. Job well done.
But it’s not. Because fact-checking is really after the fact-checking. So it’s often rendered meaningless by the time reporters get around to it, because whatever lie has been allowed to float around for however long and taken on a life of its own.
I won’t argue that fact-checking isn’t still necessary, but sometimes it even accomplishes the opposite of what it’s meant to do. Just as a for instance: every time Trump claims mail-in voting causes massive voter fraud, it’s followed by fact-checkers saying “it’s safe, it’s done all over the place, he’s wrong.” But that just makes it into a “he said/they said”. And each time that happens — which is frequent — more doubt seeps in. So by fact-checking the President’s claim that mail in voting causes fraud, media is playing Trump’s game. Better to not fact check it and point out the only reason he’s saying it is because he’s trying to engineer a way to weasel out of losing, and his sole purpose is to cause confusion before, during, and after the vote.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not accusing reporters either of not working hard or being lazy. It’s a very rare opportunity to get the President to sit down with you one-on-one for 30 minutes. And many, I’m sure, could make much of it.
But most of the time White House reporters get one question (if that) during a media briefing and then Trump veers off during his answer to whatever he feels like talking about, and then won’t take a follow up. That can be exceedingly challenging and frustrating regardless of how well prepared you are. (At the same time, if you’re gonna ask the President about the price of oil, you should know what the price of oil is. These are the big leagues, baby!)
Trump’s former Ambassador to Germany and acting Director of National Intelligence and close advisor, Richard Grenell recently Tweeted this, which Trump Retweeted:
And while I actually agree with well, half of Grenell’s bullet points, his overarching conclusion is absurd. Or perhaps his understanding of the word “advocate” is different than mine.
Because of course journalists are advocates. We are advocates for the American people. And if we’re not there to light fires under people’s butts from time to time, who else is going to do it?
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