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Self-Presentation in The Age of the Interview

25 April 2009 2 Comments

Back in 1995 the media critic Tom Rosenstiel declared this the Age of the Interview while decrying the devolution of the Q & A format as “more performance art than newsgathering.”  His fears have been realized; we have moved from news to views. Meanwhile, financially troubled newspapers still aim for accuracy and balance in their coverage. It’s a noble journalistic tradition but increasingly audiences seem to prefer to hear from hyper-opinionated individuals coming at them live and unfiltered. Still, with all its sham, drudgery and broken syntax the media interview is more relevant than ever.

Sure the shrill set commands attention but it’s the cool, confident people who get respect. If credibility is the currency of interviews, is it possible to succeed in public life if you can’t ace one? Let’s look at a recent example. Caroline Kennedy is a lawyer and an author with a quietly impressive record of giving back, but many thought her unqualified to fill Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat, and during a series of interviews she failed to change their minds.

Kennedy didn’t seem to know how to make her case or even how to make conversation. And her constant repetition of “you know” and “kind of” made her sound unsure and uncommitted. It is ironic because her father’s performance in the first presidential debate with Richard Nixon on September 26, 1960  put him over the top in a close election. It was no fluke. John Kennedy could think on his feet and he was an engaging subject as seen on archival tapes of the Jack Parr Show. (The incomparable Mr. Parr set the template for hosting The Tonight Show.)  In terms of revealing aspects of character, television trumps print and the internet.

You don’t get to outsource your answers from the hot seat. Remember George W. Bush?  His erratic performance in the 2004 presidential debates with Senator John Kerry posed a bigger threat to his re-election than did his decision to invade Iraq. Even those who had long suspected that the President was not a wordsmith were disappointed. CEOs are expected to talk intelligently about what they do, full stop. Kerry pulled even in the polls after three strong showings. Although Bush prevailed in the end, his responses will leaves historians with evidence that it was the campaign not the candidate that won the election.

Posted by Bodine Williams, the media training and message development specialist.


  • Elizabeth said:

    This is an incisive and thought-provoking piece. It is particularly interesting to apply your insights to last year’s American presidential election. Barack Obama’s apparently flawless campaign was bolstered from the start from his unique ability to speak extemporaneously and articulately, with grace and humor. And Sarah Palin’s incoherence when interviewed by Katie Couric was a classic example of a politician dependent on outsourcing her answers from the hot seat.

    Wonderful blog!

  • bwilliams (author) said:

    Hi Edi, thank you for your message. I will follow up with the technical fellows on this – please – check back. Thank you for letting me know. Bodine