NOTE: Brad Phillips was a Producer for CNN’s The Capital Gang from 2000-2001.
Robert Novak’s meltdown on CNN’s Inside Politics was predictable, perhaps. After all, he’s spent the past two years fending off growing public criticism for his role in the Valerie Plame leak investigation and has watched helplessly from the sidelines as his media brethren have turned an increasingly scornful eye at his silence. If there’s one thing “old school” reporters like Mr. Novak can’t stand, it’s being part of a story they’re supposed to be covering.
But when he swore after James Carville’s mild provocations and stormed off the set, it was a complete surprise. I ought to know. I used to be Robert Novak’s producer.
Within hours of his outburst, more than 300 news stories – from as far away as Russia, India and South Africa – had already appeared about the incident. With each story, you could faintly hear the echo of liberal commentators uncorking bottles of champagne. Media darling Jon Stewart went so far as to rub his nipples with delight on The Daily Show.
It’s an unsurprising case of schadenfreude, perhaps, since Novak has spent years mocking politicians who self destruct on camera. In early 2004, for example, he wrote about Howard Dean that, “Being overworked is a poor excuse for Dean’s gaffes.”
Robert Novak just had his Dean scream moment.
He’s not alone.
Today, as a full-time media trainer, I see spokespeople from across the nation embarrassing themselves unnecessarily. One recent client, a high-ranking city official, also ripped off his lapel microphone and stormed out of an interview only to see the clip used for seven straight days on the local news.
But the job of a journalist – particularly a television journalist – is to elicit drama. By pairing conservative vs. liberal, the entire construct of the show is intended to create a fiery debate, excluding most of the nuanced views that could lead to a thoughtful conversation. Although CNN’s “Crossfire” may officially be canceled, the left-right debate format is here to stay. I often advise clients to avoid appearing on those programs altogether and to seek a more substantive venue instead.
In many other cases, like that of the city official, viewers will never see the questions posed by a reporter. These “bites” interviews allow a reporter to ask leading, obnoxious, and downright insulting questions, but if the spokesperson loses control and gets angry, that’s all viewers will ever see.
So how can a high-profile spokesperson stay in control during an interview? First, remember the “Seven Second Stray.” Being on message most of the time isn’t good enough. Those seven seconds during an hour-long interview when you respond angrily or say something flip or sarcastic is guaranteed to be included in the segment, and will likely be played over and over again. Novak’s entire incident lasted just 11 seconds.
Second, think out what your response will be to an unexpected antagonistic comment in advance. Practice with someone who knows you well – your spouse, perhaps – and ask them to criticize you in a way they just know will get under your skin. Stay calm during your response, and choose your words carefully. It may make for an awkward dinner with one another, but the practice will help prevent self immolation when you’re on live television.
Third, monitor your non-verbals. Studies show that more than half of the way people perceive you is based not on what you say (or don’t say), but on how you look. If you successfully restrain yourself from making a sarcastic remark but your eyes, face, or body betray your true feelings, viewers will notice.
Mr. Novak’s fate is still uncertain. But just like Janet’s Super Bowl flash, President Clinton’s finger wag and the Dean Scream, Mr. Novak’s walk-off is destined to become a remembered pop culture moment.