Monday, January 04, 2010

The story's written. I just need a quote.

Wish I had a link to the video, but Houston Texans' Coach Gary Kubiak's final press conference of the season was live on-line, and live for an undisclosed number of reporters who attended in person. I don't know how many people were in the room because it's pretty bare-bones -- a single camera trained on the podium, with Kubiak taking questions from off-camera writers who don't bother to identify themselves because they cover the team all season and he knows who they are.

What I found funny in today's conference was the way one or two reporters phrased their questions. It was clear that they had already roughed out their season wrap-up and simply wanted the coach to provide a quote that would validate their central thesis. It was something like, "Coach, would you say that the third-and-down run by X___ in the sixth week was the turning point of this season?" or "Coach, did the passing game finally fall into place with the addition of Y-factor?"

I'd love to have the video because I can't remember the actual questions -- they were so precise and convolutedly pointed that they defied off-the-cuff recall. But they were similar to those English exam questions that force you to agree with the instructor's point of view: "In what ways does Turgenev depict Uvar Uvonovich as an out-of-date, irrelevant remnant of Russia's old guard, pre-1848 social order?"

Given that we're talking the sports section, this was pretty funny. In the newsroom, sports is referred to as "the toy department" and given little credibility. Sportswriters work different hours and, at many papers, they don't attend the meetings, briefings and trainings that other reporters come in for. There is a general sense that they aren't really covering "news."

On the other hand, sometimes the comic view is simply a clearer view. A clumsy sportswriter fishing for pre-determined quotes is funny, but, having been on both sides of the interview, much of my laughter comes from experiences that didn't provoke giggles.

I've been interviewed by reporters who already had the story written in their minds and only wanted quotes to flesh it out. The first few times, I was horrified when I saw the story that resulted, but, after awhile, I began to recognize it when it was happening. Unfortunately, even staying relentlessly on message doesn't always thwart a reporter who isn't listening, who is only scribbling down the parts he wants to hear, and use.

This is not an issue of "the mainstream media," a foolish phrase used by conspiracy buffs. But it is something you kind of wish you could leave behind when you climb from small papers and tiny TV stations into the Big Leagues. You would like to think that it all stays in the minor leagues, along with (no joke!) the local TV reporter who, at a murder scene, asked the lead investigator, "How was the perpetrator able to get through all this yellow tape?"

Not so. Watch the next time a more important coach, Coach Obama, has a press conference. Listen for the questions that are based on what the reporter has already decided to write.

(Addendum: They have posted the press conference, though I can't imagine anyone who isn't a Texans fan sitting through it. However, it did allow me to find one of the questions I had in mind: "Gary, if you had to point to one thing with regard to (quarterback) Matt (Schaub), would you say that the way he came back from the shoulder injury in that Jacksonville game propelled this team and showed them what leadership is all about?")


Sherwood Harrington said...

Good reading, Mike, thanks.

The questions you cite put me in mind of a famous exchange between broadcaster Tom Brookshier and Cowboys' running back Duane Thomas after an early 70's superbowl. While not exactly a "I need this quote to put in my story" kind of question, Brookshier's was a long, convoluted one about Thomas as a fast runner. Thomas answered simply, "Evidently."

But I'm pretty sure you already knew about that one.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

I'm still speechless over the local reporter and the yellow-tape question. That's just ... awful. I'd like to say "unbelievable" but unfortunately it isn't!