When Confronted With a Hostile Interviewer

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How Should Ron Paul Handle Himself On Television With Hostile Interviewers?

by Walter Block by Walter Block Recently by Walter Block: Chris Matthews vs Ron Paul

A week ago, Ron Paul was interviewed by Chris Matthews on television. This broadcaster would hardly allow Congressman Paul to get in a word in edgewise, and continually interrupted him. I wrote this column, in an attempt to explore techniques the NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. could have employed, and, also, I assessed how well he did in this one instance (very well indeed, in my humble opinion).

I received numerous e-mail responses to this essay of mine. Many of them, sad to tell, were really magnificent. (I kick myself for not having thought of these really good ways of dealing with electronic bullies.) In what follows I offer some of the very best of these letters, with commentaries from yours truly. I do this not because Ron Paul needs any advice from the likes of us. It is not for nothing that he is now libertarianism’s best spokesman. If we could all be one hundredth as good as him in this sort of thing, our attempts to promote liberty would be far better than they are now. No, I offer these comments since many readers of LewRockwell.com are called upon, in our relatively more modest ways, to do public speaking, radio and television interviews, and these thoughts might well help all of us to a better job in transmitting our philosophy.

I offer these letters on an anonymous basis; several of the authors have requested this, and I have decided to treat all of them the same in this regard. I have slightly edited most of these, for example deleting the salutations.

Author A:

We met briefly several years ago at an Austrian Scholars Conference in Auburn, though I doubt I made much of an impression.

I read with interest your LRC article about rules for interviews. I’ve worked in television for two decades, and accept your invitation to join in a discussion of these matters.

In my opinion, there is one absolute rule that must always be observed, and it is this: Always be a gentleman (or lady).

It is true that television did not become successful by overestimating the intelligence of its audience. But even viewers of the lowest IQ can recognize when someone is being ill-treated.

The more you can behave like someone who is in control, who can tolerate the rudeness of the host with grace and patience, the more you win. This is because your behavior speaks louder than words. Long after the talking points fade from memory, long after your irrefutable reasoned arguments are forgotten, people will remember one thing: You behaved like an adult. And they will remember that the opinions you tried to express were those of an adult, and the host behaved like a child. For better or worse, this is more persuasive to people than pure logic.

To my mind, this is the secret to Ron Paul’s continuing TV success. He ALWAYS behaves like a gentleman, and therefore is always perceived as a reasonable person. Even when people might believe his views to be far outside the narrow band of mainstream opinion, his gentlemanly demeanor commands attention and respect. Believe me, people watching at home respond to this even if the host does not. It gives people pause to think: “If such a reasonable, mature man believes these things, perhaps there is something to them after all.” Many times, it does not matter that he is not allowed to finish a sentence. The dignity he displays comes across sharper when it stands in contrast the childishness of the interviewer.

Here are a few other tips for giving interviews.

  • If you are invited on TV, you must accept that you are not going to be in control of the situation, you only can control your own behavior. It is their studio, their cameras, their microphones, and if they want to cut away from you and turn your microphone off, they can do so, and then take the last word. I liken it to sailing. You can only be the best captain of your ship that you can be, but what ultimately happens is up to the whimsy of the sea. Accept this, and hope for good sailing.
  • If you are nervous and not accustomed to giving interviews, acknowledge this openly if you can. Paradoxically, stating that you are nervous tends to reduce the nervousness that you feel. It also garners sympathy from the audience.
  • Smile as much as you can, unless it is inappropriate (obviously, you don’t want to appear happy if you’re being interviewed about crib death or genocide).
  • Defend yourself firmly, but never appear to lose your temper. Act as if you were correcting a small child who didn’t know he’d given offense. Show polite tolerance and grace, and you won’t need any snide comebacks or witty retorts. Again: behavior speaks louder than words.
  • And speaking of being witty, resist the urge unless you are very comfortable on TV. If you are out of your element, there is a greater chance you’ll accidentally say something inappropriate that will live forever on YouTube. Remember that most of Don Imus’s witticisms will be forgotten, but one crack about a basketball team will never die.
  • If you want to change the subject, say “The issue is not X, it’s Y.” Then follow it up with a counter question for the host. For example: “The issue is not how much credit the Fed needs to provide, the issue is how much inflation can the Fed create before it begins to ravage the economy. How do you think the housing bubble was created?”
  • If the host and the producers are really determined to make you look bad, smile and jokingly say: “I’m beginning to think I walked into an ambush here.” Acknowledge that you are outgunned, and you will negate the effect of your host’s attack. The host may not back off, but the audience will recognize the inequity of the situation. People instinctively recognize an unfair fight, and they will turn against an attacker who presses his advantage too ruthlessly. This is true even if they were originally rooting for the host. Again, grace under pressure will be remembered far longer than salient points about policy.

You mentioned Rand in your article as being most responsible for turning people on to libertarianism. This is true, but we should remember that she did so primarily through her fictional writing, not through her appearances on TV. I suspect Paul will overtake her before he’s done, because more people will see a five-minute Ron Paul TV appearance than read a 1000-page novel.

I hope you find my comments cogent to your invitation.

Walter Block:

This missive certainly has the ring of truth for me. I learned a lot from it, and I am delighted to pass this on to the LewRockwell.com audience pretty much exactly as it was sent to me. According to the old aphorism, "a picture is worth 1000 words." What I get from Author A is that behavior is worth 1000 pictures.

Author B:

I watched the interview, and I have several thoughts to point out:

Relative authority position. (not sure what the proper term is) For example: if 65-year-old Chris Mathews interviews a 74-year-old congressman Paul, then Paul has much more inherent status. If a 60-year-old (late) Walter Cronkite interviews a 20-year-old “nobody” the status is with Cronkite. The dynamics of both situations are very different, and must be used to advantage during the debate.

In the Chris Mathews interview, Ron’s best bet was to act the adult and take the “high road” He could have politely chided Mathews once or twice for cutting him off, elaborate on the previous question etc. When Mathews was ranting, Ron could have joked “Are you done yet?” Watch old videos of Ronald Reagan — he was a master at this.

In the other case, when the “authority figure” is the interviewer, the situation must be played differently. This is much more difficult, but you can win if the interviewer is perceived as a bully. This is like verbal judo. Take your opponents energy and use it against himself.

Here is a (4-minute) case where 20-year-old Jeremy Glick gets the better of Bill O’Reilly. Here is 7-minute video where Jeremy discusses his prep work.

Hope this helps.

Walter Block:

As far as I’m concerned, this helps quite a bit. In my original column, I did mention methodological individualism. This leads to the idea of "different strokes for different folks," since we are all heterogeneous, and what will work for one person will not necessarily do well for another. But, I never took the next step, as does Author B, and looked at the matter in terms of differential status. A good point.

Author C:

I wanted to share another idea, inspired by your list of strategies for dealing with Chris Matthews—type interviewers.

Take a stopwatch with and time how long you’re allowed to speak, while keeping it under the table, at least at first. After a few interruptions, pull out the stopwatch and bemusedly remark on how little you’ve been interviewed, seeing as how you’ve only been allowed to talk for 35 cumulative seconds or what not.

If they’re wise to this and invite a speaker back for another interview, but they remain likely to bully, bring a chess timer, make it obvious and on the table that they should delimit their time speaking vs yours, as a sort of overt sharing of the stage.

Just wanted to share!

Walter Block:

A very dramatic way to make the point. I once employed this technique. Not at an interview, but at a dinner table, where another libertarian attempted to draw me into a debate, well, upbraid me for all sorts of sins of commission and omission of which he thought me guilty. He has a loud and deep booming voice, while my vocal abilities are at the very opposite end of the scale. After trying voice a substantive reply, several times, and being shut down easily, I asked him, "Do you play chess?" He said yes. I then asked him, "Do you play with a chess clock?" That abruptly ended the very one-way "conversation." He was a bully, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that my next question would have been along the lines of, in the last 15 minutes, how much time do you think you had to express your views, and how much time did you allow me to express mine? That would have been humiliating to him.

Author D:

Dr. Paul should Domain-inate the interview, so to speak. Let me explain…

So, Dr. Paul is scheduled to appear on Hardball. Before the interview airs, the folks at, let’s say, Campaign for Liberty should purchase the domain name chrismatthewsinterviewsronpaul.com. The show begins and, as expected, it’s a typical Hardball exchange. As time runs out, Dr. Paul asks for the “last word.” Matthews obliges and Dr. Paul turns to the camera and says, “For more detailed answers to all of Chris’s questions, go to Chris Matthews interviews Ron Paul dot com.”

What does chrismathewsinterviewsronpaul.com look like? We’d humor Mr. Matthews and transcribe his loaded questions from the interview followed by Dr. Paul’s written answers. Of course time is scarce and Dr. Paul would have to actually write some responses! Maybe you or other austro-libertarians can volunteer some answers. This site would be an open forum for debate.

This would surely get some press and spread virally. Social Media is more effective than TV media anyway. Perhaps all of Dr. Paul’s appearances can live under an umbrella site: RonPaulvsTheMedia.com. People will know that whatever misleading questions the Larry Kings or Sean Hannitys of the world ask will be dealt with properly and answered thoroughly, focusing on the root problems.

However, I’m not the target for this website (I consider myself an austro-anarcho-libertarian). Hopefully this “stunt” would attract those that are politically and economically confused. I imagine this site would capture the libertarian spirit of Conversations with Casey. It’s a weekly online Q & A that Doug Casey calls “an ongoing dialogue on the passing parade…”

Walter Block:

All I can say to this is "Wow." I’d never in a million years have thought of this one. Somehow, I can’t quite see Ron Paul doing this, but you never know. In any case, this sure is a good way to promote continuity.

Author E:

Too many of these talk show hosts are unable to have a civil discussion with their guests. Bill O’Reilly is one of the worst and he is also the Village Idiot when it comes to economics, the free market, or personal freedoms. His sometimes fill-in, Laura Ingraham is another who can’t wait to attack some of her guests.

Glad you thought my comment worthwhile.

If I were Ron Paul, the first time I was interrupted I would say: "Chris, I had assumed the reason for inviting me to appear on your show was to interview me, ask my opinions, etc. I did not assume that the reason was so that you could interrupt me and use me as a punching bag so as I appear to be a helpless buffoon. I find it very impolite to be interrupted — I will not interrupt you. Having said that, I’m happy to be here if we can have a cordial discussion. If not, I’m also happy to leave now."

Walter Block:

This author represents the tough part of the continuum of possible answers. I find this suggestion personally very gratifying. To me, it is the next best thing to punching the bully in the nose, in terms of satisfaction. But, I fear, that the person who employs this will not be invited onto too many shows. I could be wrong. Certainly, this technique should at least be part of our possible repertoire, to use, perhaps, when desperate.

Author F:

I saw the interview in question and thought Ron Paul handled it relatively well. I watch the Matthews’ show often and he treated Paul better than most. It is unfortunate that the majority of the media interviewers engage in this conduct due to the time constraints placed on them by the networks but also because they seem to have big egos. The exception has been NPR and public TV which is (relatively) commercial free and seemingly more fair minded and objective.

Perhaps Mr. Paul should have said: I had assumed, since you invited me to be on your show, you were interested in what I had to say, yet you constantly interrupt my replies. I have not interrupted you once, please allow me to answer your questions or respond.

I once saw an interview on O’Reilly with a spokesman from the Ayn Rand Institute. It was an extreme display of this sort of behavior but what can one expect from a jackass like Bill O’Reilly.

Walter Block:

Another tough-minded response. This is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the technique I mentioned I employed with Dave Barrett in my original column. There, I was almost entirely passive, allowing him to stomp all over me, so to speak. I think it is good that we all become acquainted with as a wide range of possible responses as possible.

Author G:

All the listed strategies have their advantages, but really which one to use depends on the temperament of the person being interviewed. Some people could pull off the blunt, hostile reaction very effectively while others couldn’t. Really the absolute best reaction to a typical left-wing brat would be a back-handed slap to the face followed by a stream of threats and obscenities, but the consequences would prove to be counterproductive. Most people would probably do best adopting your approach. That’s a very effective way of simply robbing the interviewer of credibility and making him lose the moral high ground completely. After all, a decent, moral person on a program of the sort you are describing isn’t there to change the minds of the sort of audience that would watch that show. He is there simply to provide a punching bag for the interviewer. Therefore, anything that turns the tables on the interviewer and reveals him as a petty, leftist tyrant is probably the most positive thing that could possibly happen on such a program. It’s just show business. Refuse to play your allotted role the best way that you can.

Walter Block:

This letter is certainly supportive of my contention regarding the heterogeneity of libertarian interviewees. Anything that can "rob the interviewer of credibility and make him lose the moral high ground" is worth considering.

Author H:

I read this piece with great interest. I have often wondered what I would do in a similar situation, should I ever have the dubious honor of being interviewed on radio or television. I, too, bristle at the treatment given to guests on radio or TV shows, especially if they are of the opposite political persuasion. Conservative talk show hosts are as guilty of this as liberal ones.

My idea is a combination of a couple of yours. Since one would have to know, going in, that hosts engage in this behavior, my strategy would be to ignore their interruptions and go right on answering their previous (first?) question, and continue in that vein until they stop interrupting or I finished making my point. I think this would take a Herculean effort on the guest’s part simply because the hosts would probably start throwing out outrageous charges and statements just to get you to react. The temptation to respond would be almost unbearable.

Of course, one always runs the risk, with this strategy, of appearing to dodge questions, and the host would not hesitate to insinuate that you are doing just that. But, I would think that fair-minded individuals would be able to see through that tactic.

I know that bombast gets ratings, but I would think that it is also just as likely that a host could get ratings, and a reputation for fairness, by simply letting the guest make his or her points and let the audience decide. If the guest really is a nutcase, their answers would confirm it without the host exercising an editing function.

Walter Block:

Aha, support for my "keep talking at all costs" modus operandi. This, too, is located on the harsh side of the continuum, and perhaps should only be used as a last resort.

Here is an overall comment on all of this. Confession: I never really paid too much attention to this sort of thing in my career. I probably should have done more in this direction. My focus has always been on the substantive dimensions of the argument; to make sure I understood the libertarian or Austrian perspective, and could articulate it when called upon to do so, at least to the best of my ability. My initial response to the Matthews interview of Congressman Paul is that the latter should have taken the most aggressive stance possible: keep talking, upbraid him for interrupting, walk out in a huff, etc. I had the same thought when Anderson Cooper wouldn’t allow Ron Paul to speak more than a minute or two during the 2008 campaign. But, upon further reflection, I am not sure but that Ron’s response wasn’t the best of all possible choices, certainly for his own temperament. You can’t argue with success. Dr. Paul has been the most successful politician ever, to get out the libertarian word. I think it unlikely that this is in spite of his presentation style.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable and Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective. His latest book is The Privatization of Roads and Highways.

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