The Art of the Interview and Follow-up Questions: Fox News Anchor Bret Baier’s B+ Interview with Barack Obama on Health Care

–Richard E. Vatz

Substantive interviews on major national issues with political principals are always fascinating from a persuasive point of view, which is why Fox News anchor Bret Baier’s interview/confrontation with President Barack Obama Wednesday in the White House Blue Room was riveting.

First, if I may, a short tutorial on such interrogations: a major interview on a significant national topic should not just comprise the interviewee’s choosing of the topics and subtopics he or she wishes to discuss. Neither should the person being interviewed be free to give unchallenged interpretations of what is significant and what is not. We have such venues of political rhetoric, and they are called “speeches.”

I teach an advanced course in Media Criticism at Towson University, and I teach my students that the single most important criterion in evaluating an interviewer’s performance in a contentious exchange is the judicious use of the follow-up question. When an answer is not responsive to the question or when there are critical elements that are missing from the answer, the follow-up question is the method by which the interviewee is forced to address either what is being avoided and/or less-than-fully answered, or else specifically to address why the question will not be answered.

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Mr. Baier indicated that his primary concern respecting the interview with President Obama was to focus on the process by which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in Baier’s view using the “Deem and Pass” and “reconciliation” strategies – as well as Pelosi’s statement that she liked them because Representatives wouldn’t have to vote on the Senate bill — to avoid a straight up-and-down House vote on the health care package. He asked the President about how this squares with the President’s call for “courage.”

Obama ignored Baier’s request for an explanation of the contradiction.

Baier asked about the “intimidation and arm-twisting” that was cited by many of the 18,000 who e-mailed Fox news with questions for the President.

There was no answer to that inquiry from the President.

Mr. Obama was asked about special deals for states, some of which the President did declaim on, such as the Ben Nelson-negotiated Nebraska “Cornhusker Kickback,” but not others, including the “Connecticut Compromise,” which President Obama was not sure about (full disclosure: neither was this writer).

The President responded repeatedly that he was getting e-mails about the issue of the “broken system,” not the process by which the health care bill would become law. The president said that his concern was not the method by which health care was passed.

The art of asking follow-up questions requires, consistent with the ethos of the person being questioned, that the interviewer not be inappropriately rude. This happens when the respondent – in this case the President of the United States – is not given the opportunity to answer fully that which is being asked. The estimation of when this occurs must be reconciled with the time available for the interview and specific answers. More important, if the respondent makes clear that he or she will not answer a question and why, the interviewer should make explicit note of that and move on to other questions.

If you assume that an interviewer of the President has less leeway because of the latter’s exalted hierarchical position, one could say that Fox News’ Bret Baier was slightly overly interruptive at a few points, but not by much.

More striking was the fact the President Obama was willing to address only the importance per se of universal health care coverage, a topic of which there has been inarguably a surfeit. He was unwilling to discuss “Deem and Pass” and “reconciliation,” by which the House Democrats are intent on violating the morality of legislative process, an insufficiently examined topic which required an interviewer to press the President, whether successfully or not.

Professor Vatz has taught Media Criticism for almost 20 years at Towson University

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