Conversations Are More Interesting Than Debates

Hardball questions rarely yield revealing answers.

La-di-da...we're not listening.

Photographer: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When my family and I moved to London in 2000, I was really excited about getting to listen to the radio in the morning. Sounds lame, I know, but I was usually the one who got up with the kid, who had yet to turn 1, so I knew I was going to have a lot of early a.m. time with a non-speaking companion in the kitchen. The BBC’s Radio 4 would have a brilliant morning news show, I imagined, sort of like “Morning Edition” but smarter and more sophisticated and more British.

Ah, what a disappointment the “Today" programme was. My main memory is of combative presenter John Humphrys (who is still doing the show at age 72) confronting and haranguing guest after guest. It was stressful to listen to first thing in the morning, and most of the time it wasn’t all that informative. The other presenters were less abrasive, but there was very little that felt like engaging conversation. It was just breaking news, interspersed with debate. I ended up watching lots of overseas cricket matches in the morning instead.

Seven million Britons listen to "Today" every week, so maybe this reaction was mainly a reflection on my conflict-averse nature and sleep-deprived state. But I was reminded of the experience by a Matthew Yglesias piece this morning arguing that “softball” questions generally elicit more informative answers at political debates than the “tough” ones that journalists often feel that they’re supposed to ask. Argumentative questions effectively let candidates off the hook by turning the audience against the questioners and moving the discussion away from substance. They also tend to foreclose discussion of lots of potentially fruitful topics that don’t lend themselves to the hardball approach.

Now, I haven’t even watched more than a snippet or two of this year’s debates. Like I said, I’m conflict averse. But I would agree that, as a general rule, acting tough isn't a great way to elicit information. Maybe it is if you’re in law enforcement (or crime, or university admissions) and can make credible threats. For the rest of us, though, playing hardball usually just causes people to clam up or argue back.

Confrontation in broadcast journalism is mainly about entertainment. When I was a kid I was a sucker for those moments at the end of a “60 Minutes” segment when Mike Wallace would confront the wrongdoers whose misdeeds he had just spent the previous 15 minutes exposing. But he had already gotten all the information he needed; the confrontation was just show. Same goes for the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman and his legendary you-haven’t-answered-my-question-yet exchanges. He already knows the answer; he’s basically just out to make his interlocutor look silly -- often deservedly, sometimes not.

My own great weakness as an interviewer is trying too hard to come across as well-informed. That urge surely comes from a similar place as the desire to ask tough questions. We want to seem smart, and credible. But while establishing some level of subject-matter knowledge can be helpful in getting an interview going, after that you invariably find out much more if you don’t try to impress. What I’ve been telling myself for decades (and still, more often than not, failing to actually do) is this: Be curious. Ask simple questions. Listen to the answers. Follow up if you don’t understand something. Tolerate awkward pauses. Conversations are much more interesting than debates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

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    James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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