Monday, April 06, 2020

A Journalism Professor Explains Why The Media Always Fail When Questioning Trump

Seth Abramson has worked as an attorney and is currently a professor. He is also the author of Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America (2018) and Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump's International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy (2019).

He recently posted a lengthy Twitter thread which, in his words, "explains why most journalists tasked with questioning Trump fail. It's written by a professor who not only teaches journalism but also rhetoric and composition—the latter two topics the crux of the problem for many journalists."

The text of Abramson's tweets:
1/ We start with the obvious and easily understood part: Trump only permits himself to be questioned as frequently as he does because he has no intention of answering any of the questions asked. The questions exist merely as opportunities for him to say whatever he wants to say.

2/ So as an interviewee, Trump doesn't much analyze a question's content; rather, he listens to a question merely to determine—and this is key—the earliest possible moment he can interrupt his interviewer and begin speaking about whatever it is that he wants to speak about.

3/ But Trump's Achilles heel—as ever—is his vanity. He does not want to appear unwilling to answer certain questions, or to be cowed by any question, so he can only interrupt questioners at what he considers a marginally socially acceptable point to stage an interruption.

4/ Here's the rub: social conventions for interruption—once we get beyond the fact that interrupting is almost always wrong—draw a bright line between interrupting someone who is still forming a thought and interrupting someone who has already formed at least one thought.

5/ This aspect of social convention works against professional journalists. The reason? Journalists are trained to ask questions in a way that situates their interviewee within a context, first. So they often start with a context-setting statement that outlines basic facts.

6/ So a White House correspondent may begin a question this way:
"Mr. President, you spoke yesterday about the Navy ship that just reached New York City—"
Trump can now interrupt, as a thought has been formed. He can now talk about the ship the way he wants.

7/ So what mistake did the journalist make? The journalist failed to use what grammarians call the "periodic sentence." A periodic sentence is a sentence that doesn't achieve grammatical completion until almost the very end of the sentence. It's a journalist's best friend, now.

8/ When you use a "periodic sentence," you don't complete a thought until the very end of your sentence—which makes it almost impossible for a chronic interrupter to interrupt you, because (a) it's not socially acceptable, and (b) they don't know where your question is going.

9/ So let's try out a periodic sentence to see if it frustrates the {INTERRUPT} moment that a chronic dissembler, misinformer, and—yes—interrupter is waiting for to break into his questioner's presentation of facts/data and shift focus, instead, to whatever he wants to discuss.

10/ "Mr. President, many Americans get very confused when you—in discussing the virus and the work of America's governors—react to the data you see in individual states by attaching to lower infection and death figures the idea that lower figures mean a governor is 'doing well.'"

11/ Because the president's language use is at a fifth-grade level, and because he fears appearing scared of any question, the likelihood he has any clue whatsoever as to where to interrupt that sentence is virtually zero. And while he's working that out, the journalist...

12/ ...hits him with another periodic sentence: "Do you understand that it's government policies, rather than raw figures, that—when you're analyzing how an executive like yourself is doing—have to be assessed?" Those two sentences can be written out by a journalist in advance.

13/ The goal is for the journalist to take two minor "hits" to their usual journalistic practice—(1) the form in which they ask questions, (2) an aversion to pre-writing questions—for the purpose of both grammatically and socially frustrating a dangerously talented interrupter.

14/ If journalists don't start (a) using periodic sentences, and (b) writing out questions so they can reflexively use more difficult syntax and sentence structure to frustrate an interviewee with fifth-grade reading comprehension, they will continue to fail in questioning Trump.

15/ But don't take my word for it: I urge you to watch White House pressers in the coming days and hear how frequently journalists "set context" early on in a way that facilitates the interruption of their own questions. I promise you'll become (even more) infuriated. /end

PS/ The alternative option comes from another area I teach, pre-law—specifically, in the way attorneys are trained to cross-examine witnesses. In cross-examination, you make a statement (you don't ask a question) that focuses on one fact and requires a "yes" or "no" answer.

PS2/ So the "legal" rather than "grammatical" solution to Trump's transparent interruption strategy is to ask a) very short "questions" that b) are in fact statements and thus c) give him no time to interrupt before the "question"—which is really a statement—has been made.

PS3/ For instance: "Mr. President, you know there's no connection between the raw coronavirus data in a given state and how well the state's governor is doing?" Trump will be so taken aback by being cross-examined—"questioned" via statement—he will be profoundly wrong-footed.

PS4/ Trump's brain processes things so slowly that if you ask a "question" like the one I proposed, he'll likely rely instinctively on his lame anti-media posture and say, "Well, I don't agree" before even understanding your statement (which you will have made sure is correct).

PS5/ At that point you will have news to report, because you will have just gotten the U.S. president to say that it's not the policies an executive sets for his territory but simply raw infection data that determines success—which is what he believes (and it's wrong).

NOTE/ I should hasten to add that in an actual cross-examination—i.e. in court—you wouldn't say, "Mr. President, you know there's no connection between the raw coronavirus data in a given state and how well the state's governor is doing?" Rather, in court you would do this:

NOTE2/ "There's no connection between the raw coronavirus data in a given state and how well the state's governor is doing." (That is, an actual cross-examination—rather than a journalistic adaptation of the cross-examination format—really is a statement with no question mark.)

NOTE3/ I won't turn this into a thread on cross-examination—its own fascinating topic—but yes, the way TV depicts cross-examination isn't how it works. What you do is throw a statement at the witness—with no question mark—in a context in which they must respond "yes" or "no."

@RVAwonk recently offered a great clip of the phenomenon described in this thread, in which a reporter uses antiquated framing devices—the sort you'd learn in J-school in the 80s—to ask a question in 2020 (hat tip to @herewegomagic for locating it):
Caroline Orr @RVAwonk: Like a true mob boss, here's Trump telling an @AP reporter to be thankful and "stop asking wiseguy questions" about getting ventilators to dying #COVID19 patients.

VIDEO2/ "On the equipment issue, records show that federal agencies did not begin—"
An independent clause hadn't yet been offered, but the reporter supplied all the data Trump needed to interrupt:
2 RECORDS [show]
4 did not begin [FAILED]

VIDEO3/ First, imagine the cross-examination version:
REPORTER: "On March 1, the death toll internationally was [X]. Ventilators were requested March [Y]. It's inexplicable."
(Y = a number far higher than "1.")
Also, no need to start with "Mr. President..." He knows who he is.

VIDEO4/ The periodic-sentence version:
"In looking at procurement records, something analysts have seen—on the subject of when items were ordered, cross-indexed with transmission timelines—is that it was weeks after transmission rates were high that we saw procurement requests."

NOTE4/ It keeps happening, and no one seems to realize that it is—in the first instance—a grammar issue, in the second instance a psychosocial issue (as to how, why, when Trump interrupts), and in the third instance a training issue for journalists.
Reply: Frankie Taggart @frankietaggart: This literally just happened to the woman at the back. She got about five words into her set-up sentence, Trump interrupted before she could ask her question, bloviated for about a minute and then moved on to someone else. It happens to some degree on almost every question.

NOTE5/ Because I also teach post-internet cultural theory and am a metamodernist, I'll note a third option is "metamodern" questioning: encode within Trump's own metanarrative a criticism of that metanarrative. In theory, he'll let you finish your question and be stumped by it.

NOTE6/ Thus: "Mr. President, your administration has provided a staggering number of PPEs—in absolute terms—to medical personnel who've greatly benefitted from them. Of course the staggering benefit your actions have had daily would've been doubled or trebled if begun earlier?"

1 comment:

allan said...

Some replies to the thread:

I notice that when he is flummoxed he usually throws the question off by asking who they are or which media outlet they are from. This gives him time to make something up while he's bullying the reporters. He does this when he hates the question and needs to "think."

And then he starts his reply with "You ready? You ready?" Like he's about to do a magic trick.

It's hard to believe that huge news outlets with massive budgets can't train their journalists to use these techniques.

When Trump shuts down a very valid question, why doesn't every other reporter follow-up with the same question until he answers it. The WH Press Corp. rarely seem to have each other's backs. Trump knows that if he shuts one down, no one else will followup because they're scared to.

Why not try it? What have you got to lose? (Seriously, why not just ask the simplest, most accusatory question, given that the whole exercise is likely pointless?)

I wish the Journalists would defend themselves, when [Trump] calls them fake news...

I think reporters need very short, direct questions. Trump takes perverse pleasure in bullying media. Questioning who they work for. Regarding drugs, which is pissing him off lately, could ask "Sir, what is the data that this drug is effective?"

Very informative and interesting. But I have yet to see a reporter at a press briefing showing any savvy. Doesn't seem like the "A-team" is in that room EVER.

From what I've heard & read from the Press, their inability or unwillingness to hit Trump in a way that he cannot finagle out of has helped him immensely while allowing Trump to make them look like the fools. They need to get better, get smarter & hammer him into the ground.