January 19, 2009
“Happening now,” the anchor Wolf Blitzer exclaimed recently, “a CNN exclusive—our own Drew Griffin—he catches up with the embattled Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, and asks him about the scandal that has state officials now moving to try to force him from office. Stand by. You’ll see it for the first time.”
Then Blitzer delivered several other headlines and said emphatically, “You’re in the Situation Room.” Time: 5 p.m., Dec. 12. Immediately, an announcer said, “This is CNN breaking news.”
Blitzer resumed: “But first we have some breaking news [as the announcer just said] we’re working on—exclusive, brand-new video just coming into the Situation Room right now—an exchange between the embattled [again!] Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat, and our own Drew Griffin of CNN’s Special Investigations Unit. State officials are now moving to oust Blagojevich. Will he step down? I want you to listen to what he said.”
So what viewers were about to see was described not only as exclusive but also as breaking news—and happening now. It sounded as though we were about to hear something big, something important. And Blitzer told viewers to listen. But if they weren’t already listening to him, how could they hear him say they should listen? Also, listeners might wonder, How come he didn’t tell viewers to watch?
Next, videotape of the CNN reporter in Chicago intercepting Blagojevich as he left his lawyer’s office and identifying himself: “Governor, Drew Griffin with CNN. Can you say anything to the people of the state of Illinois, sir?” No reply. State of Illinois? Most of us are already aware that Illinois is a state. Or was Griffin asking about the state of Illinois’ economy? And why did Griffin ask a yes-or-no question? Especially when we all knew that the governor could answer a question. But we didn’t know whether he would answer a question. In any case, don’t preface an interview (or would-be interview) by asking whether the subject could or would answer a question; just ask your question.
A few questions a reporter might have asked: What’s your response to the allegations against you? How do you plan to defend yourself? What’s your side of the story? How do you explain this to your family–and friends and neighbors? How does it feel to see the contents of your private phone conversations spread around the world? A reporter might have time for only a few of those questions, but at least he’d be steering clear of yes-or-no questions. Don’t ask a yes-or-no question unless you want a one-word answer.
Griffin: “Do you have anything to say?” [Almost the same as his first question.]
Blagojevich: “I will, at the appropriate time, absolutely.” [Suggested response for the reporter: “I’ll give you all the time you want–right now.]
Griffin: “Are you going to resign, sir?”
Blagojevich: “I’ll have a lot to say at the appropriate time.” [Suggested reporter’s response: “Why not right now?”]
Griffin: “Governor, are the authorities right in their petition, that criminal complaint? Did you do what they say you did?” [The governor, who’s a lawyer, was highly unlikely to answer those two questions. And indeed he didn’t.]
As the governor slid into his car, Griffin asked, “Governor? Just 30 seconds for anybody? For the state of Illinois?”
Again, no response. And that’s how it ended. Griffin had asked six questions, more or less, all yes-or-no. The governor said next to nothing, only that he’d have something to say at the right time—but nothing now.
When the tape ended, Blitzer chatted with Griffin and told him bluntly: “At least, he answered one of your questions. At least, he stopped a little bit [on the way to the car]—not very much, though.” (CNN re-ran the Griffin-Blagojevich encounter on several newscasts that night. And the next day, CNN re-ran the tape on at least four newscasts.)
When Blitzer had introduced the story, he said it was happening now, that it was breaking news and exclusive. But Griffin’s attempted interview was played on tape, so it was definitely not happening now. Breaking news? Breaking, it was, but hardly news. After all, we assumed Blago would talk when he thought the time was right. As for exclusive, that’s true: no other reporter was present. Blitzer had promoted the encounter as an exchange, but it was small change.
One hour later, Blitzer again promoted the so-called exchange as taking place at that very moment. He said on his 6 p.m. newscast: “Happening now: the embattled Illinois governor talks exclusively to CNN….Listen to what he said in this exclusive exchange.”
Two days later, on Sunday, Dec. 14, at 11 a.m., on Late Edition, Blitzer re-played the Griffin-Blago encounter. When the clip ended, Blitzer told Griffin briskly that Blago “obviously didn’t answer….”
Now he tells us—after he sells us. The story Blitzer peddled as exclusive, breaking news and happening now turns out to be no grabber, just a gabber. CNN does have a huge news hole to fill, so running the Griffin-Blago exchange was justifiable. But from start to finish, CNN’s handling of the story was bad news.
© Mervin Block 2009
Mervin offers more writing tips at mervinblock.com. And still more in one of his books, Broadcast Newswriting: The RTNDA Reference Guide.