There’s been a lot of back and forth in the last few days about the incident at the recent Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in which a journalist trying to question Al Gore saw his microphone cut off.
Lots of folks out in the blogosphere are saying SEJ censored a journalist. I’m here to tell you it ain’t so, and explain that at journalism conferences and press conferences, where lots of journos are waiting with questions, we just don’t give other journos carte blanche to dominate the microphone. I’ll also point out how the supposedly censored filmmaker could have been a lot more effective.
(Full disclosure: I’m a member of SEJ’s board of directors. So I’m predisposed to defend the organization. But I’m also a journalist who, were I to mar my body with a tattoo, would have “Question Authority” stamped indelibly onto my wrist or forehead or some other conspicuous place. Also consider that I came on the environment beat in the late 1980s amid an explosion of stories about this new threat called global warming. I asked a lot of skeptical questions before finally seeing by 1997 that the science was being proved out. My first climate stories appeared that year, keyed to the Kyoto talks.)
When Gore finished his speech to a plenary session of the SEJ conference in Madison, Wisconsin, I was glad that independent filmmaker and climate-change skeptic Phelim McAleer was the first in line to question Gore. You have to understand that Gore has systematically sought to avoid such inquiries by journalists for years after his film “The Inconvenient Truth” came out. That’s indefensible.
And, look, one of the really basic tenets about journalism is: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” We are in the question business. So even though McAleer seems not to understand the growing agreement among climate scientists about global warming as a significant threat, more power to him for asking a tough question. It’s what we do. You go, Phel!
Gore — this really ticks me off — avoided answering the query. It’s not unusual for a politician to sidestep a journo’s inquiry. But that doesn’t make it right. Every journalist in that room knew Gore wasn’t giving McAleer a straight answer. That is what we do: We try to get politicians (and others) to answer hard questions. Sadly, we’re not always successful.
To be fair to the former veepster, McAleer’s question focused on a British court ruling that found nine errors in Gore’s movie. Now, with maybe 10 minutes of Q-and-A left and perhaps a dozen journos lined up to ask questions, did McAleer really expect Gore to go through all nine errors from a court ruling several years ago and respond to each one? There would be just one Q and one A in the whole Q-and-A session.
Still, Gore could have addressed the question instead of trying to deflect it. He did not.
I’ve covered way too many press conferences and media availabilities to count. It’s got to be in the hundreds. I’ve been to many conferences of SEJ and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and a few others as well.
In all those venues, journalists are expected to accord each other some courtesy. You can’t hog the floor. SEJ rules formalize this somewhat, allowing members to ask a question and a brief follow-up before yielding the microphone to others in line.
This was far from the first time I’ve seen someone cut off — at a press conference by other journos, or at conferences by the organizers — for dominating the microphone. You can ask the question. You can ask the follow-up. And then, you’re done. Anyone who’s seen a White House press conference is familiar with this dynamic.
Now, here’s what went wrong in Madison for my buddy Phel: You have to craft your single followup to be tight. Bulletproof. Something that puts the politician in a spot where he has to answer, or at least make it painful for him not to answer.
Often an effective follow-up is succinct and simple.
Instead, McAleer allowed Gore — a wily politician – to bollix him up in a meaningless yes-you-did-no-I-didn’t debate about polar bear population dynamics. (Most of my video-producing friends know better. They honor the KISS principle.)
When you find yourself in a situation like McAleer did, you wait for the politician to finish whatever he’s saying.
Then you offer your followup. Here are a couple of suggestions for what McAleer might have asked when Gore dodged his question:
1) So, you’re acknowledging the errors but you don’t plan to correct them?
2) Why won’t you correct the errors and why do you usually avoid venues like this where journalists can ask you direct questions about your errors?
3) Why do you refuse to discuss or even acknowledge the errors noted by the British court?
OK, you get the idea. Bottom line is that McAleer needed to be a little better prepared for Gore’s refusal to answer his question. It was quite predictable. If you want more, check out the video.
I’d like to point out that it’s my understanding that Gore tried to get the same deal from SEJ he’s gotten from — according to McAleer — everyone else he’s appeared before in recent years: No questions. But that’s not the way SEJ works. The conference organizers insisted he field journalists’ inquiries. That’s what gave McAleer his moment in the spotlight that got his mug onto Lou Dobbs, The O’Reilly Factor and other shows — just before his latest film debuted.
One final point: The idea that journalists on the environment beat don’t ask environmentalists tough questions is way off base. The only way a journalist of any stripe can make sure his story is defensible is to ask tough questions of all sides and see where the chips fall. I’m sure enviros I’ve dealt with over the years would verify that they don’t get a free ride with me.
As for McAleer, I very much hope he joins SEJ again next year at its annual conference in Missoula, Montana — but leaves the microphone-hogging at home.
— Robert McClure