Jack Shafer, who writes the press column for the online magazine Slate, dissected in step-by-step detail the strategy that any guest can use to disarm Russert, the toughest interviewer in broadcast journalism.
The article explains how David Duke, one-time grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, threw Russert off guard when he appeared on the show in March 1999 during his Louisiana campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives.
“Unable to stick it to Duke with his time-proven techniques, Russert sputtered, steamed, and almost boiled over,” Shafer wrote.
But few other politicians have come even close to rattling him. Here’s what Tim Russert taught Publicity Hounds about interviewing:
—Know your interviewer inside and out. If you agree to an interview and you have time, research clippings and past shows so you know what to expect. I suggest you even call other people who have been the subject of interviews by that reporter and ask questions like “What was the worst thing about the interview?” and “What was the biggest surprise?”
—Anticipate all the tough questions. Shafer’s suggestion to have somebody on your staff prepare a mock interview and compose answers for the most challenging questions you can imagine is the same advice every good media trainer recommends.
—Know what has been written about you and what hasn’t. That includes even the smallest morsel of information on the Internet. Pay attention to where you appear in public records like divorce proceedings, lawsuits, or arrests for things like driving while under the influence. Be ready to concede those issues if you must, and then move on.
—Put reporters on the defensive. Russert seldom fell for this trick, but your run-of-the-mill beat reporter for your daily newspaper certainly might. If reporters ask questions that include inaccurate facts or unfair assertions, call them on it and challenge them. Reporters aren’t the only ones who are allowed to ask questions. You can, too. But only if you understand how the game is played.
—If the interviewer askes you a question you don’t understand, feel free to interrupt. And don’t answer until you understand the question completely.
“Too many of Russert’s guests allow him to fling enormous, mattress-sized paragraphs at them that are far too complicated to answer on television. Interrupt him when a question needs clarification. Interrupt him when he’s startled you with something fresh. Interrupt him back when he interrupts you. Interrupt him for the hell of it. It drives him crazy, and when he’s crazy, he loses his place in the script, his face goes a tad red, and he loses his momentum.”
Crisis counselor Jonathan Bernstein, who I’m guessing would describe Russert as a “media wolf,” has another important piece of advice. It’s as relevant for you as it is for Russert’s guests, who were treated to snacks on the set at the end of each show and would chit-chat about things like their families.
Even if the cameras and microphones are turned off, you can talk with the journalist, but act as though everything you say is on the record. Hundreds of sources have been burned when they thought the interview was over and they could say anything they wanted and the journalist wouldn’t be able to use it because the camera was off or the reporter’s notebook was closed.
Jonathan was my guest during a teleseminar on “How to Keep the Media Wolves at Bay.” He makes his living counseling clients on how to confront the media, or stay out of trouble so they don’t see the wolves at their doorsteps.