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My Experiment With Rep. Robert Wexler on Fixing A Media Flaw That Angers Many Viewers/Listeners

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The Question I Didn't Ask Robert Wexler: Will Bush Use HR 362 to Use a Naval Blockade of Iran to Escalate Into Armed Conflict

I can't tell you how many times I curse under my breath when a news anchor doing an interview drops the ball and lets the person being interviewed have a pass when he or she avoids answering a question or doesn't answer it directly or changes the subject or replies with an answer that demands another level of questioning. So I was extra frustrated that I was guilty of this on my own radio show. But we came up with a solution.

I see this kind of softball, weak interviewing happen every day. This article talks about my personal experience BEING one of those broadcast interviewers and a solution I've come up with--one that I tried, that worked, and could set a precedent for how the mainstream media handle unfinished interviews and resolve unanswered questions.

The other day, I was not surprised to find my chagrin waking me up at 5:30 AM as it sunk in on me that I'd been guilty of doing the same thing with my radio interview the night before with House Rep Robert Wexler (D-FL), who I am actually a big fan of. With the release of his new book, Fire-Breathing Liberal, I had a half hour interview booked about 30 minutes after he finished a few minute stint with Keith Olbermann.

A few hours before the interview, I got a call from Wexler's chief of staff, feeling out the climate for my interview. While my site, OpEdNews.com is an apparently friendly site for a liberal legislator, it has a lot of members who are further left than liberal. One site poll showed that 40% of our readers would support Nader McKinney or other. About 10% are conservatives who will probably support McCain. So I wasn't surprised when a writer wrote a hit piece on Wexler for endorsing House resolution 362, a bill which calls for putting tighter economic constraints on Iran, including the "demand" that President Bush prohibit the export to Iran refined petroleum products.

My Wexler-excoriating writer pointed out that this could justify a naval blockade that could escalate to war. Actually, a whole lot of people on the web are raising this concern.

One of our OpEdNews editors raised the same issue and a reader, responding to my invitation to suggest questions for my interviewee, again raised the same question, pointing out that former FBI analyst and NIE report writer Ray McGovern had also raised the concern.

So, when Wexler's chief of staff called me, about four hours before the show, to check out the "climate" Wexler would be encountering, I assured him it would be, overall, friendly, that I'd put a link in the article that tore Wexler a new one to David Swanson's article, In Defense of Robert Wexler, and that I was a fan of Wexler. But I also told him I did have another Wexler fan who wanted to ask him about the disturbing news that he'd signed on to a bill that others were saying could be used as a pretext to start a war with Iran-- a war set up and approved by congress.

Johnson assured me that Wexler was happy and ready to talk about the resolution. We had mutually reassured each other.

I'd set up the interview so my editor would be on the line, ready to ask away, when cued. After about 9 minutes talking about the book, about my having lived in his district, about the large percentage (about a third) of his constituents being Jewish, and how he dealt with Israel-- he pointed out that he'd been a spokesman for the Obama campaign, reaching out to Jewish communities, and how, under Obama, with direct talks with leaders, Israel would be at less risk, I asked my editor, Cheryl Biren-Wright, to ask her question about his endorsement of the bill that could lead to a naval embargo.

Wexler replied that there was no reference to a naval embargo written into the bill.

Cheryl asked him another question (She reviews this in great detail in her exceptional article. (If Increased Sanction Resolution 362 Could Give Bush License for a Naval Blockade, Why Support It?)

Moving the interview in a different direction than Cheryl wanted it to go, I commented on my belief that it would be easy, if a nation wanted to go nuclear, to do it without Iran's nuclearization, since N. Korea and Pakistan already have the technologies, and, what the heck, I'd reported the previous week that the US couldn't account for over 1000 nuclear weapon and delivery system parts. Even the US could be the provider of a nuclear weapon against Israel.

Before I knew it, we'd been talking about the bill and Israel and Iran for 13 minutes. There were only ten minutes left and the big subject I'd wanted to discuss with Wexler was impeachment. I had afterdowningstreet co-founder impeachment activist David Swanson waiting to get into the conversation and I wanted to ask Wexler how I could persuade my congressman, and my listeners could persuade theirs to endorse Kucinich's two impeachment resolutions and get things moving off the table.

But in the back of my mind, I had a question that would be rather confrontive. "The wording about a blockade may not be in there, but how can you assume it won't be used. Isn't that the kind of thinking that led so many democrats to support the original resolution that Bush used to go to war?" It wasn't the only question. There were a lot of them I could have asked.

But I didn't ask it. I didn't have much time left. David was waiting on the phone. I had more questions I wanted to ask and so I moved on.

After the interview, I called Cheryl. She was frustrated too.

I asked her why she didn't ask the question. She explained she didn't want to interrupt and saw I was moving on. I pointed out that she could have asked. But, almost as I said it, I felt guilty. I was the host and she was a caller, well sort of. (I am experimenting with the idea of having invited, temporary co-hosts who are writers with expertise in the area to raise the level of discussion and smarten up my expertise. It's clear that it's an idea that needs fine-tuning, with some instructions to the temporary co-hosts on persisting with their questions.)

I woke up thinking there was another option--an alternative to us both being frustrated. And when I checked my Blackberry, I found an email expressing frustration that Cheryl had written me at 3:02 AM.

I'm a multimedia kind of guy. The radio show I do is an extension and outgrowth of the writing I do-- for OpEdNews.com and the Huffingtonpost. The way I see it, the conversation with congressman Wexler doesn't have to be over.

I believe that he went into the interview with good faith, as did I.

But now I can see just how tough it is, for an MSM journalist to drill down and follow up on answers by interview subjects who don't nail the issue on their first answer. I had half an hour. Most people on MSNBC, CNN, etc. have a few minutes and a producer whispering in their ear moving them along. They have a tight schedule and no room to ask that extra question, which the interviewee may or may not answer directly and straightforwardly, which either way could add two, three or more minutes to a time slot that doesn't allow for that extra time.

So what's a frustrated interviewer to do when there's not enough time, when other questions are pressing and the REAL question hasn't been asked, the REAL answer hasn't been reached? I mean, I've been furious with interviewers for doing what I did. And here, I was DOING it.

Now part of my thinking was that this was a really confrontive question and I wanted to maintain a relationship with Wexler, to be able to interview him on the radio show or for articles again. You don't get TOO in a persons face and stay cordial. But there was also the consideration whether I'd get a real answer or a less than direct answer-- anywhere from a total evasion to a long-winded answer that would eat up a lot more minutes without dealing with the real issue. Politicians are masters at that.

I have to stop for a moment and allow myself to be distracted. Richard Belzer's dog (I just met Belzer AND his dog at the Personal Democracy forum on Tuesday) just threw up on Mika, on the Morning Joe Show. They're standing around talking about vomit. reaching millions. And look at me, flagellating myself over not asking a question.

Okay. I'm done laughing at the puke commentary. Now we know Mika's dog throws up all the time. Thanks for that Mika. Okay, so now I'm really, done talking about dog vomit... I think. We can get back to talking about media vomit--you know, when interviewees give weak or disingenuous or evasive answers and the hosts just give them a pass.

I was talking about not having gotten the questions answered, my own personal experience with media vomit, about waking up before dawn, being upset about it, and finally, about an idea I had for a solution.

There's another way--a way that is really easy and that can even turn out to be GREAT for the broadcast media.

I decided to contact Rep. Wexler's chief of staff and tell him about our frustration and how it would be great if we could get another shot at a follow-up question. He agreed to do it.

I talked it over with Cheryl... a lot. We discussed a whole lot of the ramifications of the question, Wexler's issues with Jewish constituents, his support for liberal causes--and Cheryl came back, after doing a ton of research, with four questions. I had my one question and I whittled away two of Cheryl's questions because I didn't want to take too much advantage of Wexler's good will and ask that he write us a whole report.

After a good 15-20 minute conversation with Wexler's chief of staff, Eric, and then an extended conversation with Cheryl, I put together the following message to Eric.

Thanks for the phone time this morning. Much appreciated.
Here are the questions we discussed on the Rob Kall Radio Show last night that we'd like to have answered by congressman Wexler:

OpEdNews editor Cheryl Brien-Wright wrote:

1. The resolution states there is nothing that "shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran," but if Iran responds aggressively to the above actions such as US ships stopping Iran's and attempting to board for inspection (as I believe the US would respond aggressively if such a thing were imposed on us) would the President not then have reason to retaliate militarily?

2. Where does it state in the resolution the demand that the President work with an international coalition not an American unilateral act.


And, as I discussed with you, here's my question.

This resolution will give Bush an excuse to combine the congressional authorization given to him in 2001 to respond to terrorists so he claims he has explicit approval from congress to ratchet up the effort to block Iran from importing finished petroleum products to include a naval blockade. And isn't it a mistake to trust Bush not to exceed the authorization here, so he will use the resolution as a pretext to start violent hostilities?

Lastly, as we discussed, this process of follow-up of a live interview with the "big" follow up questions that weren't asked seems to be an idea that could dramatically improve the current state of the media. When TV interviewers have two minutes with an interviewee, there's no way to get real substantive discussion that gets to the meat of the issues accomplished. Willingness to follow the short interview with a detailed, more in depth response makes for a more informed public and more transparent leadership. Your participation in this sets an example. There's no reason why all the other media people on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, etc. can't be doing the same thing we are doing. I'd like a brief comment on your thoughts of the idea of a post live interview follow-up.

I'll be posting your responses on OpEdNews.com and the Huffingtonpost.com

He replied pretty quickly that he'd have an answer for me. It didn't happen overnight. That's fair enough. It was the weekend. The answer came in on my birthday, Sunday, at 10:02 AM EST. Here's what Wexler's chief of staff had to say,

Here ya go Rob. I will get more info to you next week on what is happening with the resolution.

__________

Thanks for the phone time this morning. Much appreciated.
Here are the questions we discussed on the Rob Kall Radio Show last night that we'd like to have answered by congressman Wexler:

OpEdNews editor Cheryl-Brien Wright wrote:

1. The resolution states there is nothing that "shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran," but if Iran responds aggressively to the above actions such as US ships stopping Iran's and attempting to board for inspection (as I believe the US would respond aggressively if such a thing were imposed on us) would the President not then have reason to retaliate militarily?

2. Where does it state in the resolution the demand that the President work with an international coalition not an American unilateral act?


ANSWER TO QUESTIONS REGARDING H. Con. Res. 362

(A) H. Con. Res. 362 does not in any way "authorize the use of force":

* To reiterate your own point nothing in this resolution "shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran." ANSWER: First and foremost H. Con. Res. 362 is a non-binding resolution which is only a statement/expression of Congress without any force of law.

* Following the disastrous Iraq war and the Bush Administration's criminal abuse of Executive powers, I am not willing -- along with the overwhelming majority of my colleagues -- to give President Bush congressional approval for the use of force in Iran. This resolution could not be clearer on this point and it is one of the main reasons I cosponsored this resolution.

* I do not believe that the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq provides President Bush the authority to preemptively strike Iran without the consent of Congress. The bottom line is that President Bush must get congressional authorization before any military strike against Iran. If he exceeds his authority it will be up to Congress to hold him accountable. As a member of Congress who openly supports impeachment proceedings against the President and Vice President, I am more than ready to use the full force of Congress and law to prevent the President from once again over stepping his legal authority.

* The goal of the resolution is to place additional economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Iran instead of giving this President any authority to use force. Given my distrust of the President I am also a sponsor of H. R. 3119, which if passed into law would prohibit the use of funds for military operations in Iran unless authorized by Congress. We have a responsibly in Congress to prevent this reckless President from unilaterally attacking Iran; and, this legislation (H.R. 3119) sends a clear message that Congress will not give Mr. Bush a blank check and that we support a policy of international diplomatic engagement rather than military force.


(B) H. Con. Res. 362 does not call for or enable the President to act unilaterally w/out international support:

* With respect to the arguments that this resolution gives carte blanche authority to the President to conduct unilateral acts against Iran - this is not the case. In the third resolved clause Congress "Demands" ("not ask or urge but demands") that the "President initiate an international effort." This language is specific clearly stating that Congress demands that the Mr. Bush engage in an international diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. As a member of Congress who strongly supports American/European Union and United Nation diplomatic efforts to end Tehran's enrichment of Uranium - I oppose unilateral actions that would further isolate America. Instead I support direct American engagement with Iran alongside our European allies.

* Furthermore, as the authors of the resolution stated in a June 25 letter in response charges of unilateral American action, "These assertions are absolutely false and, frankly, utter nonsense," Ackerman and Pence wrote. "The resolution states plainly and distinctly that "nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran;" the economic sanctions the President is urged to seek are explicitly placed in an international context; and the methods contemplated for achieving these sanctions are no different than those currently being employed to implement existing UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, namely enforcement of export controls by UN member states within their own borders."

This was an experiment. The question: Can unanswered questions which arise on a live broadcast, with not enough time to ask them live, be answered?

The experiment worked. We got an answer. We've published it in an article by Cheryl Brien-Wright-- If Increased Sanction Resolution 362 Could Give Bush License for a Naval Blockade, Why Support It?

And here I am writing about it. It's a different level of conversation that goes into greater depth than the sound byte that broadcast news or radio allows.

This is doable. I'd like to see it start a precedent. And it doesn't have to just be a question that the anchor/interviewer comes up with. It would be a big step towards a better Media if the MSM encourage viewers and listeners also suggest questions.

It would be a big step forwards if interviewees came with expectations that they would participate in post interview responses. It's not reasonable to expect responses to a lot of questions, but it is reasonable to ask for responses to a few questions, hopefully pulled together from the interviewer AND listeners/viewers by the production and editorial staff of the show where the initial interview aired.

This would not just be a clerically annoying task. It would give interviewees a chance to flesh out their answers and add additional comments and nuances, including comments that go beyond the answers to the questions. It would let interviewers drill deeper to get to the heart of the matter. Some interviewees would duck and weave and continue to avoid answering questions. But some will embrace the opportunity and perhaps even, as it appears Wexler did, dig up additional info that adds to the picture.

I give Rep. Wexler a lot of credit for stepping up to the plate on this, especially regarding a thorny issue that puts him on the horns of a dilemma between his liberal base, which clearly opposes this resolution and the 60% of his supporters in his district who are Jewish and who see strong support as Israel as a major issue. By the way, part of the way Cheryl and I addressed the whole Israel/AIPAC Jewish lobby issue was to ask progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, for his take on the bill and the Iran Israel situation. His response was so good; we published it too, as this article Why They Are Seeking a Blockade of Iran

What we've done here doesn't answer all the questions and there will be readers who are not satisfied with Wexler's response. I am certain there are many who will see anything other than withdrawal of his sponsorship for the bill as less than adequate. But we've don't something here that bears repeating. If I can do it, so can Bob Schieffer, Wolf Blitzer, Joe Scarborough, Keith Olbermann, Dan Abrams, George Stephanopolous, Tom Brokaw and a host of other people who never have enough time to ask all the questions they'd like to or should. One might argue that TV magazines, like 60 Minutes and 20-20 already do the follow-up. But they make up a tiny portion of the news.

The interesting thing is, this will be a low cost, but very profitable endeavor for the MSM networks that should dramatically increase their web traffic. And it could lead to news breakthroughs and content that are very significant, even headline worthy.

The internet is changing the world. The bottom up approach to politics won the election for Obama, and it is already changing the way news is done. Adding web published follow-ups to broadcast interviews that don't get to the bottom of things is a great way to make the media more bottom up, more open and deeper. I wonder if any of the interviewers I mentioned above will try it. I think they'll like it. This is so easy, with so much potential to improve the quality of TV journalism; it's hard to imagine why they don't all jump on this.

Last, I'll try giving this idea a name. Call it a broadcast net-follow-up.

cross posted from OpEdNews.com