How To Beat An Unfair Host In A Media Interview

How can you beat an unfair, badgering, aggressive host during a media interview?

Should you out-debate the host? Respond to aggressive questions with even more aggressive responses? Challenge the host’s unfair bias?

Well, sure, those things can work in certain situations – but there’s a much easier technique that most spokespersons never consider.

Do nothing.

Ted Koppel, my former boss and the long-time host of ABC’s Nightline, once said that an audience’s allegiance is to the interviewer, not the person being interviewed – at least at the beginning. That makes sense, since people who tune into Bill O’Reilly probably tune in because they like him, just as people who tune into Rachel Maddow probably like her.

Former ABC News Anchor Ted Koppel (Photo Credit: Timbrauhn)

But if the viewer begins to perceive that the interviewer is being unfair, the host will lose his or her audience, and sympathy will shift to the person being interviewed. You don’t have to do anything dramatic for that to happen. It happens on its own.

The stunning interview posted below, from 2009, is one of my favorite examples of this dynamic at work.

Lawrence O’Donnell, a strong supporter of health care reform, was guest hosting MSNBC’s Hardball. His guest was Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), a strong opponent of health care reform. During the interview, Mr. O’Donnell called his guest a liar. He was sarcastic, disrespectful, badgering, accusatory, hostile, and rude.

Mr. Culberson tried to fight back. He responded well at times, such as when he said:

“I’m not sure why you had me on today if you’re going to do the whole show. I’m giving you a very serious answer…Lawrence, excuse me, am I going to be able to give an answer here?”

 

As a result, some sympathy shifted his way. But he squandered some of the sympathy by attacking too much. Mr. Culberson failed when he said, “Lawrence, do you wonder why nobody watches MSNBC?” He repeated that line four times, potentially alienating the entire viewing audience, which presumably tuned into MSNBC because they liked the network.

It’s true that his anti-MSNBC comments likely played well with his conservative base in Texas. But they were unnecessary and ceded the high ground he had earned with MSNBC’s viewers. He would have scored more by doing less.

The technique of “doing nothing” shouldn’t be used every time you face an aggressive host. But if you sense that the interviewer’s hectoring isn’t likely to play well at home, do nothing and let the audience come your way.

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