I watched Sunday night’s 60 Minutes program with Lesley Stahl verbally pounding away at Betsy DeVos, the fabulously wealthy woman who became Education Secretary, and then really, really, really did not do well being interviewed.
It really was not a good interview. DeVos clearly is not someone who interviews well at all, and I have known many bad interviewees that aren’t incompetent in their jobs. It is the same reason I put zero stock in campaign debates — at most, it shows who is the best debater, not the most qualified candidate.
When I used to teach public speaking to college students, I trained them how to handle crisis-level questions in front of an audience as asked by me who was a professional journalist when they had no time to prepare ahead. Most of them learned how to handle it. Many learned because they watched their classmates, took notes, and then discussed strategies with each other between classes and breaks, which was the actual, if covert, point of the exercise.
I also had many of those students for my Communications course — and that required a different skill set, in this case, writing reports, letters, memos, and other forms of business communications. I can tell you right now some students were better written communicators, while others could do impromptu speeches without blinking.
Some could do both with ease, and others struggled with both forms of communications.
So that a seasoned national journalist such as Lesley Stahl could make mince meat of DeVos is not actually impressive. She could have just as easily lobbed less hostile questions instead of taking an unnecessary aggressive stance, and gotten a better result. If she were a truly adept journalist, she could have revealed much more about DeVos without the theatrics.
DeVos could easily get crisis media training, and learn how to keep calm under brutal interview conditions. It’s a dirty little secret: people who handle hostile interviews well do so because they paid former journalists and PR firms to show them what to expect, and how to react.
A person who doesn’t buckle during an intense interview could merely have been trained to do it — and your impressions are not actually accurate.
My j-school graduate thesis was on how to use crisis communications to control the message. I wanted to know precisely how PR could take a bad situation, and then regain control of the narrative to bring their clients’ a decisive victory. I interviewed veteran PR specialists for it. I read their manuals, and my advisor owned her own PR firm. By the time I was through, I had created a map of how people in the field eke out victories within devastating defeats.
So DeVos had an abnormally hostile interview. She was unprepared — but it doesn’t mean she didn’t know the answers of questions asked during the interview. Some people freeze, have poor memories under abnormal circumstances (and getting interview for a national television show is a highly unnatural experience, in both the style of communications, and the reasons for submitting to such an unnatural style). What it means is she had a bad interview, and as a journalist, that’s not what you actually want to make a point: you want a fair interview where people can come to their own conclusions because you gave enough space for someone to reveal themselves on their own free will.
You would need to find other confirming or refuting evidence to see if she is that uncertain of information, and it is here that Stahl’s report completely crumbles itself.
You cannot rely on a single hack of being the bogeyman interviewer and then strutting around intimidating a newsmaker — you need to have your researchers find proof that this person has a lack of knowledge in a very specific area, and then show it during the segment.
So, for example, if I were to interview someone who was accused of a crime he denies committing, and I ask him to tell me what he did that entire day, and he had a gap or two during the interview, I could go on that information alone, showing how the intrepid and aggressive journalist “uncovered” the truth with the interview alone.
But that would be very dishonest. I would also have to go back, and interview people who could tell me whether this person has a bad memory, is a private person, actually has an alibi, but may have kept quiet to protect a person, or was ashamed of something and clammed up.
If during the course of my research, I found out the person did have an alibi, but just froze out of fear, the interview becomes a lie.
But if I find out that the person doesn’t have an alibi because he committed the crime — I can now easily run the interview clip — and then enhance that part by showing what else I found to confirm the significance of that segment of the conversation.
This was one of those showy interviews that had a far less going for it than meets the eye.
This is not to say that’s what happened to DeVos in that interview — but interviews with hard anchors at critical points make for news.
As a journalist, I can tell you that I have come across seemingly gotcha parts. Each time, I had to see how much I actually “got”. Sometimes, there was something significant, but other times, the person just didn’t have media training and fumbled.
There is even a term for it: L’esprit de l’escalier. It simply means of thinking of the right comeback or answer after it is too late. As a journalist, I always had to factor in that possibility when working on a story because if someone came back and provided evidence that they were in the right, then my credibility was in question. Sometimes that is exactly what you are dealing with, and other times, it isn’t. You cannot tell until you have confirmed or refuted that contentious segment.
Why is that important?
Because journalism is about facts. An interview is just one source of information, even if the story is about that newsmaker. People not schooled in the profession don’t always see what’s the big deal, but it is a crucial factor. I have interviewed people for potential stories, and then when I tried to verify information from more than one source, things didn’t add up. There was no story; just someone who wanted media attention and gave a stunningly perfect interview.
Which is another problem: often, the people who give the best interviews that are smooth, charismatic, and seemingly logical are, in fact, rubbish. It’s a bunch of lies strung together and then packaged to be media friendly. Bon mots can be like that: they are the witty rent-a-quotes who know exactly what to say, how to say it, and when, but their timing and confidence masks the fact the interview is a hoax.
Or, some of the interview holds up — the parts meant to reassure me that the person is on the level — but the important stuff — the reason for the interview — is just hogwash.
The DeVos interview was a classic Bambi-versus-Godzilla interview, and the problem is that they are pure entertainment. It plays to the partisan, but when you look at it empirically, it is just as flawed as the interview itself. It was like being impressed that a heavyweight boxer punched the lights out of a five year old who is already scared of him.
So I wasn’t not exactly impressed with the quality of the actual story because all the feints and ruses could not deflect my attention away from the problematic omissions of the story; in this case, the succinct and elegant facts that could have made a better case then verbally slapping around someone who honestly doesn’t have to be working for a government when she has that much money and purpose. DeVos is a generous philanthropist. She doesn’t have to do any of it, and I am sure, on some level, she cannot understand the vitriol hurled at her.
There is far more to the story than the fact that lefties hate everyone who doesn’t walk lockstep with their demands, just as righties hate everyone who doesn’t walk lockstep with theirs. That is not news. That’s life.
What is news is more textured: who is Betsy DeVos and why is she pushing through all that abuse when she doesn’t have to do any of it? What’s the motive? What drives her?
That is the first and most important part of the story: setting the framework of this highly unusual woman. You do not have to like her or hate her, but you do need to understand what drives her. Is it the paper crown? Is it her part of her core beliefs? If so, what are those beliefs?
What brings this person to this spot?
You then have multiple ways you can take the facts: what has she done? How is it working out so far? How does her machine operate? Some people are factualists and can recite every piece of data off the top of their heads. Other people are fuzzy thinkers, and they are broad in their approach.
The problem with the Stahl interview is we don’t actually know if DeVos is a fuzzy thinker, a person who doesn’t interview well, or not fit for the job. People who hate her will go to option #3 without bothering with hard evidence.
But an outsider will wonder more about evidence. If you are a true journalist, you have to bring facts that refute alternative explanations.
If you are a partisan hatchet queen, you just attack. Stahl just attacked. This will not sway DeVos’ defenders. It will not push outsiders to draw the same conclusion. Do not preach to a converted flock. Show, don’t tell.
So what viewers were left with is a hot mess: a person who obviously doesn’t interview well up against someone who is all show, and a lot less substance than what she ought to be.
Stahl discussed how certain test scores for students were going up, and not down, and I found that argument interesting, but not exactly damning.
If you have test scores going up — or down, then you have to account for the quality of the test — is it reliable, valid, useful? Are the questions relevant to gaining mastery for eventually employment? Is there cheating? How are these tests administered? Is it across the board? Have the tests been diluted?
Very often, tests are dumbed down to reach certain quotas. If you are making the case that test scores prove that schools are functioning fine the way they are, then you have to prove it. You do not appeal to authority, and tests are a form of authority.
If the point of the story is to say that unequivocally, that this person is making horrific damage and there is empirical proof, you have to make an iron-clad argument. The haters will be satisfied with just a meme poster.
The problem with 60 Minutes is that they do an awful lot of authority deferring, and tests aren’t always as definitive as they first appear. There are many tests to detect psychological disorders, but some of those tests count everyone has having a form of a disorder, regardless if they score zero or the maximum, and many of those tests cannot differentiate one disorder from another.
Math tests may not have those issues, but they can have other issues. Are students training to pass that test at the expense of learning more than what’s on a test?
So, if you are going to make the hypothesis that DeVos is going to make things worse, you then have to spend the bulk of your research establishing the current educational landscape first. You can’t just take one set of tests score then think that’s all there is to it. It’s a confirmation bias.
Even for the brevity of a television news segment, you can still do this kind of research. You build a structure as a reference point, and then find several facts that decisively confirm your hypothesis — but should you find any that refute it, you still have to give it credence to give an accurate account of reality. So someone may be mediocre at one part of the job, but their strength is somewhere else, and then the news consumer can balance it out for themselves.
If that were the only faults, I doubt I would have even mentioned the report at all because almost all 60 Minutes’ follow the same formula, but then the Washington Post stuck its nose in it, and then got all stupid about it in this silly opinion piece.
To say the piece is a ridiculously unwarranted leap in logic would be an understatement. Betsy DeVos gave one really bad interview where it was an uneven bar fight, and now the commentator decrees that is the reason rich people should never meddle in civic affairs.
That is prejudicial thinking to say the least. What if a raging sexist decided that no woman should be in positions of power based on that one interview as well? It is the same primitive thinking.
The sophistry spewed in the piece is melodramatic, but doesn’t actually make her case. You have people who try to contribute something more, and then they don’t do it right because they don’t have the same experience in navigating through it. That doesn’t speak poorly of those willing to try, sometimes with hundreds of millions of their own dollars — it speaks very poorly that we have a system that is rigged against novel ideas from atypical people who are willing to get pummelled on a national news program because they truly believe in what they are doing when they could be doing things that are not stressful or potentially humiliating to them.
Western thinking is highly bigoted in that regard. It is xenophobia that keeps alternative ideas from being added to systems, making fairly logical theories turn out to be disastrous because we have people sabotaging the person at every turn, distracting them so that they do fail. We have come to the point that we want those people to fail just for the selfish purpose that they may be right, and then we cannot get the glory from it. It’s the selfie mindset.
We don’t have ways to experiment and test new methods, making it hard for us to take advantage of changing landscapes because our rote models of doing things try to ignore reality. You cannot shut out the wealthy from civic life just because you are a petty little soul who is jealous of their money.
Just as I believe you have to look after the whole of the society. We don’t have the terminally ill in charge of a healthcare portfolio. We don’t recruit the poor when it comes to elevating their financial precariousness.
We have lost nuances of thinking and have become binary machines.
So both 60 Minutes and the Post offered nothing of value to the public discourse. The worst of it was that there were several more sensible and useful ways to make a stronger case, but when people are too in love with themselves and pay no mind to the reality swirling around them, it becomes an empty theatre where nothing is truly learned, and we are no better off before the show than after.