Conducting an interview is a little like holding a bird in your hands. Squeeze your subject too hard and you kill the bird; too lightly and the bird escapes. With that in mind, how did NBC’s Bob Costas do Monday with former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on Rock Center with Brian Williams?
Interviewing an alleged pedophile is a volatile assignment, and Costas received a lot of compliments from fellow journalists and the public for his aggressive treatment of Sandusky and his lawyer on Monday night. But we believe that, by going for the kill shot too early, asking too many closed-ended questions and assuming a judgmental posture, Costas may have crushed the bird he was handed.
How so? Clearly, Sandusky and his lawyer felt they had a story to tell the American public, one they believed might mitigate the scorn he now faces. Like the good cop who elicits a confession with a sympathetic line of questioning, Costas might have used that eagerness to elicit information we have not heard before.
Instead, Costas charged in as bad cop, dropping the whole litany of charges and accusation in his lap in the first question. From that point Sandusky was largely adversarial and unyielding in the face of Costas’s questioning. An approach made worse by many closed-ended questions that Sandusky batted away. “Are you denying that you had any inappropriate sexual contact with any of these underage boys?” Then, “Never touched their genitals? Never engaged in oral sex?”
Or “A guy falsely accused or a guy whose actions have been misinterpreted doesn't respond that way, does he?” And the cringe-worthy “It seems that if all of these accusations are false, you are the unluckiest and most persecuted man that any of us has ever heard about.” There’s a question in that?
The best answers Costas got from Sandusky were for open-ended queries such as “What did happen in the shower the night that Mike McQueary happened upon you and the young boy?” Or “How do you feel about what has happened to Penn State to Joe Paterno, and to the Penn State football program and your part in it?”
Where should Costas have started the questions? How about “What is the responsibility of an adult coach toward children in his care?” Or “What is your definition of trust?” A keyed-up Sandusky, disarmed by the neutrality of the questions, might have lowered his guard and forgot about his scripted answers. At worst, this allows for questions later about how Sandusky’s values square with the grand jury testimony.
Finally, while Costas facial expressions were often impassive, his questions were not, peppered with judgmental buzz words. When Sandusky does allow that he feels horrible about how the episode affects Penn State, Costas does not ask the simple “why?” question. He instead jumps in with the adversarial, closed-ended “Do you feel culpable?” Then he colours the eye witness testimony of Mike McQueary with “How could somebody think they saw something as extreme and shocking as that when it hadn't occurred, and what would possibly be their motivation to fabricate it?” Sandusky recoils and brusquely tells Costas to ask McQueary.
Were Costas a district attorney, Monday night’s drama might have been considered a successful interrogation. Likewise, were he the minister of decency it might well have been a home run. But he is a journalist, and by putting Sandusky on the defensive immediately, Costas lost any chance for texture and nuance--and perhaps even an admission from Sandusky to relieve his conscience. Getting Sandusky’s story-- however objectionable-- was Job One for Costas on Monday. He didn’t do it.
Penn State Ratings: Think bad news doesn’t sell? After all the horrific Paterno/Sandusky news last week, Saturday’s Penn State/ Nebraska game set a ratings record for a noon ET NCAA football broadcast. The game received a 3.8 overnight Nielsen rating on ESPN, the network’s highest rating in the noon window on record (dating back to 2001). Imagine the number had Paterno or his assistant McQueary gone ahead with their plans to be on the sidelines?
Radio Radio: The Vancouver Canucks last week renewed their radio contract with The TEAM 1040 for another six years. No terms were released by the parties, but Usual Suspects has learned the deal could be worth $3.4- 3.7 M annually to the club. That’s believed to be the highest radio fee for a Canadian NHL team. The impressive ratings generated by the station during last spring’s playoff run (followed by subsequent decline in the summer) left the Canucks in a strong position to ask for a healthy rights fee from the TEAM, a CTV/ TSN/ CHUM station.
Interestingly, the TEAM 1040 says it has no plans at the moment to follow other sports-radio stations in its chain and add the prefix TSN to its title. Within the past year the company’s stations in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg have all added TSN to their title. Why not Vancouver? The station says it has no plans to rebrand, but sources say that the Canucks’ sponsorship deal with Rogers, TSN’s competitor, made a TSN TEAM 1040 identity a no-go for signage around Rogers Arena and Canucks events.
Perhaps the only loser in the deal was former TEAM afternoon anchor David Pratt who pegged his salary expectations to the expected boost in rights fees and was dropped by the station this summer. While Pratt lost his job, the station lost one of its most identifiable voices, a lose/ lose for both parties.
The healthy fee for the Canucks will come as happy news for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they look for a new broadcast partner for 2012-13. The Leafs are hoping to leverage TSN Radio and Sportsnet 590 The Fan to replace AM640, which carried the team in the current contract. Radio industry watchers think the Leafs will set a record for their radio rights in this cycle.
Cold Callers: Finally, must have missed where Ron Wilson, Nick Kypreos, Mike Keenan, Doug MacLean and Brad May were able to squeeze in journalism degrees around their busy hockey duties. In the discussion of The Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk calling up Maple Leaf goalie James Reimer’s mom for concussion info, they all seem to have become experts on the ethics of reporting. Such multi-taskers. Gentlemen, since you apparently missed the class while pursuing your hockey studies, the credo of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Because Wilson, in his role as Lord High Executioner, chooses to manipulate the data does not mean the story ends there. Restrict yourselves to “active sticks” and “1-3-1” defences and we’ll handle the journalism stuff.