An interview between Axios’ Jonathan Swan and President Donald Trump is being heralded throughout the media world these days as a beacon of amazing journalism. When you add in the viral spread of certain clips of the interview, the attention it’s gotten on late-night talk shows and the memes it has inspired, you would tend to think Swan got Trump to admit to blowing up the Hindenburg while choking out Jeffrey Epstein after planting blood in O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco.
The truth of the matter is that it was a great interview compared to what we normally see in interactions between the media and Trump, but it wasn’t the second coming of Christ, either. It is also true that Swan is a heck of a good reporter and journalist, although I’m not buying his claim of longevity at Axios, per his LinkedIn page. (He hasn’t worked for Axios for 110 years, but I bet covering the Trump campaign and presidency has made him feel like he aged that much…)
However, Swan’s efforts here come down to three simple things that you can do as a newer journalist that will improve your interviewing in some pretty major ways.
KNOW THE TOPICS WELL: One of the clearest things that comes through in this interview is that Swan came loaded for bear. He knew the topics he wished to discuss with the president better than the president did. He had data with citations that supported his questions. He pinpointed specific concerns he had with the president’s answers and as well as Trump’s approach to the topics.
In one key exchange, Swan is talking about the people who were dying of the coronavirus and Trump responded by telling him how the U.S. was better than “the world and we’re lower than Europe.” Trump then provided a chart to support his claims.
A lesser journalist would have folded under this response, figuring the president had data that refuted his claims. Swan quickly examined the chart, knew what was involved and pointed out how that chart wasn’t relevant to the question.
Swan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany et cetra.”
Trump: “Wha… You can’t do that!”
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?”
Trump then fumbles around with other charts and sputters a bit without ever really answering either question. (“How is it that we’re so far behind everyone else when it comes to keeping people from dying?” and “Why can’t Swan use the data in this way?”)
Swan did things like this repeatedly because he could. He knew the material, the data and the approaches that Trump was taking to the questions (and why those were irrelevant, immaterial or just plain wrong). Swan KNEW things because he had worked on knowing more than anyone else when he went into that interview and what probable counterpunches the president would throw. From the first question to the last, Swan was just better prepared.
PLAY THE PERSON: One of the better binge-worthy shows I picked up really late in its run was the TV drama-dy “Suits.” The key attorney in the show is Harvey Specter, the slick, know-it-all, closer of closers. He always manages to win the hand, get the girl and save the day with the dashing flourish of Sean Connery’s version of James Bond and the “I TOLD YOU” self-confidence of his hero, Muhammad Ali. One of his favorite explanations as to why he always wins is this: “I don’t play the odds. I play the man.”
Here’s Example 101 of this:
At one point in the interview, Swan notes that he has covered Trump for more than five years in his capacity as a political figure. That level of intimate knowledge about Trump gave him a decided advantage in his approach to the interview. He knew how Trump would approach the topics. He knew that he couldn’t sit back and wait for the president to finish talking before asking another question. He knew that he had to challenge key points at the time in which Trump made them, or he’d be overwhelmed by the sea of word salad that the president was pouring forth.
You might not have five years to figure out what makes each one of your sources tick, but you can make sure you don’t go into an interview uninformed in this regard. A good interviewer is not only familiar with the topics and questions that will be involved in the discussion, but also the person with whom the interview will be conducted.
For example, we have talked about how silence can be an ally in some interviews. When someone drops a weak answer on you, you can sit there silently and force them to fill the awkward silence with some improved elaboration. Swan knew that Trump would never stop talking, nor would he need any prompting to elaborate on a topic. He also knew that the elaboration was likely to be filled with what could generously be called vague statements and ego-driven puffery.
Swan steps in at key moments and breaks through to force clarification on specific issues. In discussing the coronavirus outbreak, the president says that “some people say you can test too much.” Swan immediately comes in with the question of “Who says that?” Instead of giving names, Trump tells Swan to “read the manuals, read the books.” Swan then comes back in with “What manuals?” This gets no real response, as it’s pretty clear that Chilton doesn’t have a guide for how to know if you’re testing too much.
He pushes aside the puffery in simple ways. When Trump is flustered regarding a question, he pivots to talking about all the other great things he has done as president, both real and imagined. Swan interjects by telling him that he’s not debating those points and he has given Trump credit for those things, but they have nothing to do with the issue at question. He then digs back into the question.
Other journalists who have interviewed Trump over the last five years have failed to do these kinds of things because they haven’t understood Trump as well as Swan has. Swan knows the plays the offense is running on Trump’s team, so he’s building a defense meant to stop them and put his team in a better position to have a competitive advantage.
When you interview someone for the first time, ask other journalists you know as much as you can about that person and how that person reacts. Read anything you can find about this person to see how he or she deals with the media or certain topics. If previous video interview exist, watch them and look for patterns and themes in their approach to content and the interviewer.
If you know the person you are going to interview well enough, you will know how to conduct the interview in an effective way. You will know if you have to push harder to get better answers or if pushing harder will make your subject clam up. You will know if you should toss a question out and let the source roll or if you need to grab the interview by the scruff and keep pulling it back to where it needs to go.
Don’t just play the interview. Play the person.
GET IN THE CORNER AND FIGHT FOR THE PUCK: An old-time hockey journalist who covered games back during the times in which the NHL only had six teams and nobody wore a helmet explained the difference between run-of-the-mill scorers and the great Gordie Howe:
“A lot of those goal scorers would watch the puck go into the corner and watch everyone fight and claw for it. Once it came out, they went and got it and then they scored. Gordie would go into the corner and get the puck. THEN, he would score on you.”
The point is, if something’s worth anything, it’s worth fighting for it.
A number of critics noted that Swan could be more combative in his approach to the interview because he didn’t have to risk anything in the long term. Other reporters who cover the White House or other networks that rely on access to keep the grist mill rolling don’t want to upset Trump, lest they lose their ability to suckle at the administrative news teat.
CNN and FOX and MSNBC and others seem to have an implicit arrangement those in power in Washington, D.C.: We treat you nicely and you treat us nicely. You give us access, and we tell people what you let us see. It’s a simple symbiotic relationship that works well and there’s no need to upset the apple cart. Swan is part of that “outsider” fringe that doesn’t have to do the daily grind, so he can do things like this without paying a penalty.
If you are a reporter making that argument, find another job.
Swan didn’t go in there to piss anyone off. He didn’t come in like Sean Hannity interviewing a hippie selling homemade anti-Trump soap at a farmer’s market with the proceeds going to benefit Antifa. He came in there as a person who wanted answers that would matter to his audience.
He starts the way anyone should when an interview begins. He was decent, polite and clear. Eventually, the puck went into the corner, and Trump started throwing elbows in there, trying to win the fight.
Journalists tend to go to the opposite extremes when this kind of thing happens: They back off and let the person swinging elbows have a wide berth or they start swinging back, which leads to the whole thing devolving into a fist-fight.
Instead, Swan scrapped back in an effective, goal-oriented approach. The more the president started swinging wildly, the more Swan focused on the puck. He understood why he was there and where the value was. If he wins a fight, who cares? If he gets the puck, he has a chance to score.
In short, non-hockey parlance, when an interview starts getting a little rough, remember why you’re there in the first place and stay focused on that goal. Don’t back off or overreact out of instinct. Keep your eye on the prize and push forward.