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Election 2012: TV Journos on How to Get Candidates Talking

You don't need a Gallup poll to know most people are pissed off with Washington. They—and the TV networks—watched as the Congressional debate over our nation’s debt ceiling stretched out for weeks and literally led to the Standard & Poor’s credit rating downgrade that launched the financial markets into a weeks-long roller-coaster ride, the last thing the brittle U.S. economy needed.

With unemployment still raging, much like the sentiment of many toward U.S. involvement in conflicts abroad, it makes for a perfect storm now of populist anger and partisan politics. And with the presidency literally hanging in the balance as many believe President Barack Obama could be vulnerable come next November, it’s an especially hostile environment in which to launch a presidential election cycle for the candidates.

“It’s very partisan right now, very bitter and back-stabbing,” says Wolf Blitzer, CNN lead political anchor and anchor of The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer. “It’s highly charged.”

While candidates have been dancing around journalists’ questions forever, it could be argued it is more crucial than ever for reporters to demand answers. The stakes are high not just for the country’s future, but for the networks as well. Election years traditionally drive ratings higher at the news networks, and a single high-profile interview can be a de! ning moment for a journalist (think Katie Couric asking then-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin about her reading habits in 2008).

But when TV journalists get access to candidates, they are finding perhaps more of an uphill battle than ever to get them off their platform talking points and to just answer a question.

“There’s no doubt that it’s increasingly diffiult to get an unscripted moment from a candidate,” says Norah O’Donnell, CBS News chief White House correspondent, who has been anchoring Face the Nation for the vacationing Bob Schieffer.

So What Do You Do?

Perhaps this difficulty was best displayed on Aug. 14, when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.) dodged her fair share of questions on the Sunday-morning show circuit the day after winning the Iowa straw poll—which journalists including O’Donnell, Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace, This Week’s Jake Tapper and Meet the Press’ David Gregory handled with various levels of adeptness.

It’s a situation that will arise countless times while covering an election, forcing a journalist to ask a question several times to try to elicit a straight answer, or at least show viewers that the candidate is refusing to do so.

“You definitely don’t want the audience to think you are being snookered because you didn’t get an answer,” Blitzer says, noting he will ask a question up to three times, including pointing out on-air the interviewee’s refusal to answer.

To do that, TV newsers say they must be tough but balanced, must push without being confrontational.

And while candidates may try to filibuster their way out of answering a question by taking up airtime, especially on a remote interview where it’s harder for a journalist to cut them off, most agree rudeness will get a frustrated interviewer nowhere.

“You want to be polite and respectful, you’re not going to start screaming at them, ‘Are you an idiot, why don’t you answer the question?’ There’s nothing else you can do,” Blitzer says.

“There’s no need to be confrontational. The viewers are smart. If you want to say, ‘you’re lying’ in an interview, that’s a different kind of television,” CBS’ O’Donnell says. “Viewers can see for themselves whether a candidate is evading or answering a question. They don’t need the interviewer to make a judgment about that.”

And while a highly partisan environment with more media competition than ever may seem to lend itself to an increased desire to catch candidates in “gotcha” moments, most journalists say that’s not the case. More than anything, they’re looking for the honest moments, which candidates’ reticence precludes, however counterintuitive that may seem to be for a populace looking precisely for honesty from Washington.

“In this day and age where supposedly voters are going to reward authenticity, the fear that most of these politicians run from, it couldn’t be less authentic,” says Chuck Todd, NBC News chief White House correspondent and host of The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. “It’s sort of running counter to what the politics of the moment craves.”

Another one of Blitzer’s tricks includes just asking an interviewee if they will at least answer some simple yes or no questions, a strategy he used to get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to disclose information about her future in an interview in Cairo, Egypt earlier this year.

‘More Intense Than Ever Right Now’

Most journalists say they don’t worry about being seen as so tough that candidates won’t want to come on their shows (or walk off once they are on, á la former candidate Christine O’Donnell with CNN’s Piers Morgan last week). When it comes to bookings, giving fair interviews is the most important factor in getting candidates, says Rick Kaplan, who was the producer on the infamous Katie Couric/Sarah Palin interview when both were with CBS and is now executive producer of ABC’s This Week.

“If you’re just being tough, the candidate might get irritated, pissed off, whatever, and that anger, that might last a week, two weeks,” Kaplan says. “But ultimately they’ll see that well, in their heart they know you were being fair and you’re doing what you had to do, it’s all business. And they’ll come back.”

But that could be a concern, as we are in an election-year environment in which candidates are more locked-down than ever. Besides Bachmann—who numerous journalists say is particularly tough to reach— every campaign is seeking to control access. It’s a far cry from the John McCain of 2000, who invited reporters to ride along on his “Straight Talk Express” as he engaged in free-range conversation on the campaign trail.

So why the trumped-up media coaching and strategy?

For one, as the recent debt crisis negotiation showed, it’s a political atmosphere that doesn’t encourage compromise and where complex debates are turned into TV-ready sound bites perhaps more than ever (if that’s possible). And not only is the country more divided than ever politically, but changes in the media landscape that have been building over the past two decades are reaching a fever pitch.

“The acceleration of the news cycle, the unbelievable variety of outlets that are available to any policymaker any time, the fact that everyone knows that everyone is basically on the record all of the time—those are all things that have been happening for a long time, but they’re more intense than ever right now,” says George Stephanopoulos, anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America and the network’s chief political correspondent.

And part of that is likely due to the ease—and speed—with which an off-the-cuff remark or aside comment can go viral and potentially derail a campaign (see Howard Dean, John Kerry circa 2004).

“Every campaign is so in fear of the YouTube moment, so in fear of the spontaneous moment in a negative way,” says NBC’s Todd. “They’re trying harder and harder to create an invisible barrier between candidates and the traveling press pool.”

For now, it seems none of the current GOP front-runners (at presstime, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Congressman Paul Ryan were still on the sidelines) are embracing the opportunity to have candid exchanges, except maybe the recently entered Rick Perry, the Texas governor whose shoot-fromthe- hip rhetoric already got him in hot water with a comment about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

The statement prompted President Obama to say Perry has “got to be a little more careful” with what he says as a presidential candidate, in an interview with CNN’s Blitzer on Aug. 16.

That’s a communications strategy the rest of the political field has seemingly already mastered. And in the all-too-familiar dance that happens every day (as it has for decades in political reporting), it’s a strategy that journalists will spend the rest of the political season trying to break down. Because for all the countless airtime sure to be spent on the election between now and November 2012, the real test for the candidates and the networks will be who, in the end, can really say something.

Ben Grossman contributed to this report. Fox News Channel declined to make anyone available when contacted via email for this story.