The man’s certainly got chutzpah. Donald’s Trump’s response to the question about the rise in antisemitism in America since his election is obviously bonkers, but there is a twisted brilliance to it.
Put yourself in his position; you are at a joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, basically accused by a reporter of being responsible for increasing antisemitism. What do you reply? You deplore antisemitism and say you will investigate the alleged incidents?
Don’t be daft. You used the occasion to conjure up the most outrageous non-answer ever. You tell the reporter that you won an astonishing victory despite being told it was impossible to get 270 electoral college votes let alone 386, that you are going to stop “bad things” happening like crime, and how you have a daughter, son-in-law and three beautiful grandchildren who are Jewish.
Finally, your coup de théâtre – you announce that we’re going to see a lot of love over the next few years. Lots of it.
Like all interviewers, I have spent a professional lifetime asking questions that people don’t want to answer either because they don’t think I have a right to know, they think the question is stupid or irrelevant, or that an honest answer would be compromising. But rarely have I been met with the acid trip of an answer that Trump delivered the other day – and today, in a spectacular press conference in which he outdid himself, lambasting the media’s fake news about the “chaos” of his administration while the reality is “it is running like a fine-tuned machine”.
“The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it we’re doing an incredible disservice to the American people,” he stated. So how should the press respond to a president that treats it with undisguised contempt?
To be fair some of my questions over the years have deservedly been met with contempt. To Willem Dafoe – is it true you have the biggest penis in Hollywood? (I mean, how would he know?) To Leonardo DiCaprio (“I love your earliest films, but would you not agree that the ones that immediately followed were a bag of shite?” (That is not a question, it’s a rude statement, and looking back I understand why his dreamily named publicist Mr Ken Sunshine stopped the interview at that point.)
This is not to say daft or rude or pathetic questions can’t be good ones. When I asked Woody Allen how he did so well with women when he was so “plain-looking” (I meant to say ugly but couldn’t bring myself to) he gave the following PhD of an answer.
Well, first of all, I come into contact with more beautiful people than the average person because they are mostly actresses and generally quite attractive women. So I have access, that’s important. A second thing is, you know, before they even meet me they think, well, he must not be a complete jerk because he’s been making films for 30 years. That helps. And there’s the subliminal sense I’ll be able to help them, or in some way make a contribution to their lives professionally. I don’t think they think that in a calculating, cold way, but I think subliminally that helps.
Then, over the years, I’ve worked very hard at it. When I’m in contact with some of these beautiful women, if they interest me, if they are intelligent, or charming or attractive, I throw myself at them. I work very hard at it. I’m attentive, I’m conversational, I’m interested in them. So, if you add up all those factors – access, motivation, some success in my profession – I can do better than you would think just looking at me.
I’m convinced he gave such an amazing answer because he’d spent his whole life wondering the same thing, and had just been waiting for somebody to ask him the question.
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Some daft questions are unanswerable, but still worth asking. When I asked a bullying Lou Reed if he was “as horrible in real life”, I was glad because it conveyed the tension in the room and my wimpish disappointment.
But the reporter in this case did not ask anything daft. It was an important question that demanded a considered answer. So what went wrong? What enabled Trump to get off the hook?
Keep it simple
First of all, the journalist waffled (I’m not saying this out of a sense of superiority, just out of recognition). Interviewers, when they are nervous (and sometimes when pompous), ask in 100 words what could be asked in 20. The shorter the question, the less wiggle room.
In this case the reporter took even longer. There are numerous clauses – in the middle he breaks off to address a question to Netanyahu, then he adds a third question that might be addressed to either men. He highlights the complexity of his question(s) by insisting the final bit is a “simple question” when it is anything but.
Worst of all, he is inaudible at the end. The “question” is so long that it invites a confused, meandering response.
So what should he have said? Ideally he would have boiled it down to his essence, and left off the second and third parts.
If you’re asking a tough question, be unambiguous
Libel lawyers have taught me a great lesson in recent years – if you’re asking a tough question, be as unambiguous as possible. The interviewee is not going to think you are playing nice because you’ve sandwiched the question with subclauses and caveats. In short, if you’re going to accuse somebody of antisemitism, accuse them.
In this case, the question could have been: “Mr President, do you think the reported rise in antisemitism in America since you started campaigning for the presidency can be attributed to the xenophobia and racist tones of your campaign and administration?”
Trump might have simply said no, and tried to humiliate the journalist. Or he might have asked the reporter to backup the alleged rise in antisemitism (which maybe he could have done in the initial question). But a more direct question would have certainly given Trump less waffle room.
Remain true to your journalist self
There are so many different ways to ask questions. David Frost interrogated Richard Nixon brilliantly (and then became known for a more gentle style of questioning, which encouraged interviewees to see him as a friend); the art critic David Sylvester wheedled his way into Francis Bacon’s psyche by asking the simple question “Was the Screaming Pope pappy”; Rolling Stone co-founder Jann S Wenner got a fabulously vitriolic interview out of John Lennon by stirring things about Paul McCartney; Jonny Carson and David Letterman opened people up with cheek and humour; James Lipton’s inoffensive set questions (“What is your least favourite word?”) for In The Actors’ Studio can dredge up great sturm und drang; Oprah is a born-counsellor/confessor; and Howard Stern gets people to blab with shock-jock directness.
Perhaps the most important thing to do as an interviewer is remain true to yourself. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not – even if the version of that you present of yourself is slightly exaggerated.
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A few years ago, I was surprised to find myself sounding like George Michael’s father when I asked him if he had taken crack cocaine.
Are you smoking crack? I asked. “No.”
Have you ever? “No!”
He starts again.
“I mean, I’ve done different things at different times that I shouldn’t have done, once or twice, you know.”
I say I’d hate to think of him on crack. “Of course. Of course. Nobody wants to regularly smoke crack.”
I’m feeling more parental by the second. It’s hard not to worry about Michael – for all his paranoia, recklessness and self-absorption, he exudes intelligence, warmth and generosity.
“Look me in the eye,” I say. “Were you smoking crack?”
“Was I? On that occasion? Yeah.”
Interviewing is intuitive
Sometimes the less obvious questions draw the more interesting response. Just before Amanda Knox was re-convicted of murdering Meredith Kercher (she has since been cleared again) I asked her why even people who believed that she hadn’t killed Meredith thought she had been involved. That was the point at which she broke down – because she couldn’t make sense of the fact that she had momentarily confessed to something she hadn’t done, and she despised herself for it.
Interviewing is intuitive. In a way, it’s anti-intellectual. Clever people often don’t make for good interviewers; nosy, inquisitive people do. Smart questions rarely draw smart answers. Often, the simplest questions do.
Remember, most interviewees don’t want to tell you the truth – they are only talking to you because they have to to fulfill contractual obligations or because they are promoting something – or because they are president of the United States.
Over the next few years, in the so-called “post-truth” age, interviewing might become harder and harder. (My fear is that the more we talk about post-truth, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the reality is that truth was always at a premium.)
Interviewers must always remember we have a right to be there, that we are representatives of the public, that we have to ask the questions they want answered – whatever the likes of Trump spokesman Sean Spicer tell us.
And when that question is not being answered, or the president takes you on a diversionary meander along the Trumpian streets of love, the job is simple – tell him he’s not answered the question.
And if you get the chance, tell him again.