Monday, October 10, 2005

"The president leads the interview..."

Last year, in the lead-up to President Bush's visit to Ireland, Bush was interviewed by Irish journalist Carole Coleman. The interview caused a diplomatic incident, with the White House complaining to the Irish government (!) because Coleman treated the President as she would any European political leader, asking real questions and interrupting with followups when his answers were manifestly inadequete. In Europe, they call this journalism, and its an important part of holding government to account. In the US, however, it's perceived as "disrespectful" and "rude" - practically lese majeste - to expect those in power to give a straight answer to anyone.

Carole Coleman gave her perspective on the interview in the Sunday Times yesterday. It's a fascinating look into the sycophantic bubble around the President and the questions they expect to be given:

A younger male sidekick named Colby stood close by nodding at everything she said and interjecting with a few comments of his own every now and then. Colby suggested that I ask the president about the yellow suit the taoiseach had worn the previous week at the G8 Summit on Sea Island in Georgia. I laughed loudly and then stopped to study his face for signs that he was joking — but he didn’t appear to be. “The president has a good comment on that,” he said.

The taoiseach’s suit had been a shade of cream, according to the Irish embassy. But alongside the other more conservatively dressed leaders, it had appeared as a bright yellow, leaving our Bertie looking more like the lead singer in a band than the official representative of the European Union. It was amusing at the time, but I was not about to raise a yellow suit with the president. “Really?” I asked politely. But a little red flag went up inside my head.

Yes, when journalists get ten minutes with the President, they're expected to ask him his opinion on other people's dress sense. And those that refuse to cooperate are denied interviews, which may result in them losing their job. If that's the state of journalism in the US, its no wonder their democracy is in trouble...


There is a marked difference in interviewing cultures between North America and countries like NZ and seemingly Ireland.

No Kim Hills or Mary Wilsons or Sean Plunketts in Canada for example, where politicians are given the softly-softly treatment during interviews (e.g., the "how did that make you feel?" and "how do you respond to your critics?" type patsy questions).

The notion of interrupting or even redirecting any middling to senior politician, let alone head of state, is almost unthinkable in Canada.

In my view, a middle ground between sycophant and attack-dog is generally desirable. New Zealand has too many of the latter.

Posted by dc_red : 10/10/2005 01:48:00 PM

Good interview - clearly the white house have a problem when they encounter a true free and democratic press.

dc_red I don't think Coleman's interview should be written off as 'attack dog' - she only called him up/interrupted him when he was clearly attempting to avoid direct questions.

Posted by Joe Hendren : 10/10/2005 03:51:00 PM

Erm...... I don't think dc_red did say Coleman's interview was in the 'attack dog' style, but that too many of the interviewers here in New Zealand were like that. Here they're robust - to put it mildly - even compared to the UK.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/10/2005 08:40:00 PM

Indeed, from what I saw of the interview (admittedly a while back now) Coleman's interruptions seemed reasonable and relatively mild. She wasn't being "robust" for the sake of it.

Posted by dc_red : 10/11/2005 10:50:00 AM

It is quite remarkable in a democracy, that Bush rarely has to front any adverse questioning or direct scrutiny. Cf. Tony Blair who at least has to front up to Parliament and is expected to front to the Press as well.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/11/2005 01:55:00 PM