I was the second reporter in line to ask Al Gore a question at the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting in Madison, Wisconsin Friday. The first guy, Phelim McAleer, is a climate change skeptic best described as a Michael Moore of The Right, and he has touched off something of a cybercascade of patent silliness on conservative blogs and talk shows.
A rather ineffectual practitioner of political theater, McAleer got into a pointless, non-journalistic tiff with Gore over polar bears. His goal was clearly to catch some video of Gore in an embarrassing moment so he could include it in an ongoing documentary called “Not Evil, Just Wrong.” The entire episode has been raked over well in other blogs, including this excellent summary at the Columbia Journalism Review. So I’ll just quickly give you my perspective, since I played a small bit role in this Grade B drama.
Despite McAleer’s claims to the contrary , the SEJ gave him his chance to ask his “tough” question. It turned out to be a silly question of a kind that any politician could (and most certainly would) parry. McAleer asked Gore if he accepted a British High Court’s 2007 ruling that “An Inconvenient Truth” contained nine significant errors, and given that it has been shown to children, whether he accepted those errors.
With that, McAleer violated three guidelines for effective interviewing, showing that his interest wasn’t really in journalism.
- The first guideline is to ask one question at a time. If you ask a two-part question, your source will more likely than not forget the first part and answer just the second. (Or he might answer the easier part of the question, escaping from the clever trap you thought you had set.)
- The second guideline is that unless you specifically need a yes or no answer (say, to confirm a piece of information), it’s usually better to ask a more open ended question because it is more likely to elicit a revealing response. (It’s very easy for a source simply to say, “No,” and then point to the next questioner at the news conference.)
- The third guideline is be succinct, and definitely do not make speeches. Well, in this case, McAleer didn’t quite make a speech. But close enough. rather than ask a follow up question he simply badgered Gore with a provably incorrect assertion, saying over and over again — without scientific merit — that polar bear populations are increasing. His implication was that global warming is bunk. Gore shot back, “You don’t think they’re endangered, do you?” So oddly enough, it was Gore who was asking the questions in this exchange, not McAleer.
McAleer claims the SEJ prevented him from “speaking truth to power.” And since then, the tiff has been touted by conservatives as evidence that environmental journalists are nothing more than liberal lapdogs who worship at Gore’s feet. But I was there, and what I saw was something of a clown making a scene and hogging the microphone from about a dozen other journalists who were waiting to ask their own tough questions. Including me.
What question did I ask? Well, Gore had said in his address that the cap-and-trade legislation currently wending its way through Congress was not what he would have written. So I asked him just what he would have written.
Of course he evaded it. I should have asked how he would improve the current legislation. In retrospect, I can see that this one would have been likelier to elicit a meaningful response. But that’s just it — I was interested in a meaningful response, not just political theater.