After recently watching a video clip from Fox News, I realized that Dr. Ben Carson, Republican candidate for president of the United States, is in big, big trouble.
In the video, Carson is trying to explain to Megyn Kelly why he, like Donald Trump, has been claiming that, during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack that shook the world, he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, when in actual fact he did not see this at all. It was all a misunderstanding that arose from a confusing encounter with a journalist.
I think I see where his problem lies, and as someone who has done a bit of media training in the past, I feel qualified enough to offer Carson one small piece of basic (and free) advice on how to answer questions from reporters.
And here it is. When facing down journalists, it is of utmost importance to listen to their questions and understand them fully before answering. Listen to all the words.
This is especially important if the question is a long one, say more than four words or so.
Although you may be struggling to stay awake, you must force yourself to listen to the entire question. Otherwise, you might miss some crucial detail that makes your response look foolish, and require you to appear on TV later to explain to yet another reporter what you actually meant. Failing to listen can lead to a tedious and vicious cycle of endless Q&As.
Let’s take this entirely hypothetical set of questions that a cunning journalist might throw at any unsuspecting presidential candidate.
Reporter: “Were American Muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11 when the Towers fell? Did you hear about that or see that?”
Not only is the first question 13 words long, it is immediately followed by a second question that, on the surface, seems intended to clarify the first, but might only serve to confuse the candidate. This combination requires extra concentration.
Beware also of the specificity of some parts of the question, specificity that you might miss without proper listening. “Were American Muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11 when the Towers fell?”
Use of such specificity by journalists is a well-known “gotcha” tactic for tripping up candidates. By slipping some specific details into the question’s “word salad” of nouns, verbs, etc., the reporter is hoping to pin you down to a concrete position, whereas you would prefer to answer in vague generalities, as is your God-given right.
Without careful listening, you may be lured into answering this question with a simple “Yes”.
This will lead the liberal media into believing that you saw American Muslims cheering in New Jersey on 9/11 when the Towers fell – when that could not be further from the truth.
Though pithy, one-word answers can pose additional problems. They may lead the reporter to badger you further with follow-up questions such as: “Can you expand on that?”
You may be tempted to answer this follow-up with the common-sense observation that:
“There are going to be people who respond inappropriately to everything. I think that was an inappropriate response.”
Still obsessed with pointless specificity, the reporter may see this perfectly appropriate statement of opinion as an evasion of the original question, and pursue you further with a new gotcha question, such as: “Did you see that happening, though?”
Exasperated, you might feel compelled to answer in detail about how you witnessed the particular incident of people cheering, an event which the reporter can’t seem to move on from.
For example, you might say: “I saw the film of it, yes.”
Then, out of the blue, a different reporter – obviously in cahoots with the first – shoots off another, completely unrelated gotcha question: “In New Jersey?”
In your haste to be done with the matter, you might be tempted not to wait to fully understand the question.
Not so fast. The phrase “In New Jersey?” conceals some dangerous specificity that could affect your response. It could be interpreted by unforgiving political observers as referring to a particular geographic area. Without carefully parsing the words “In New Jersey?” you may not recognize the reporter’s hidden “agenda” of trying to pinpoint where you claim the cheering incident took place.
In other words, being too quick to answer with a “Yes” puts you in a position of appearing to agree that the event you witnessed occurred in some place called New Jersey, and that you appear somehow to know where that is.
This might become awkward later as you find yourself attempting to clarify to Megyn Kelly on Fox News that, in fact, you had no clue what the reporter was asking, and certainly didn’t understand that she was talking about that New Jersey – where naturally enough you never saw American Muslims cheering on 9/11.
Simply listening carefully to actual words can sometime save even the most inattentive non-politician from a world of embarrassment. It’s worth giving it a try sometime.
(Postscript: I feel a bit bad about making so much fun of Ben Carson, who is doubtless a pleasant guy, but as presidential candidate comes across as a clueless and/or self-delusional huckster. If I were a Republican, I’d be extremely pissed that so many of my fellow Republicans take him seriously enough to make him a frontrunner. I’d be ashamed. I really would.)