Straight answers make the best copy

Published 10:06 am Wednesday, March 5, 2003

By By BILL CRIST – Publisher
Once they find out you're with the press, the reaction is often predictable, if not at times outright comical.
That rule often holds true on a local, statewide and national level. The more experience the interview subject has with dealing with reporters, the more politically correct their answers tend to be. The theory is true not just locally, where the subjects of interviews are often facing a reporter armed with a notepad for the first time, but also on the state and local level. While some subjects are the masters of weaving their answers to fit the current public mood, others earn fame by bucking the trend, speaking off the cuff and expressing their thoughts, opinion polls be damned.
In recent history there was perhaps no one more adept at tailoring his remarks to satisfy his audience than former president Bill Clinton. Although his charisma helped him rise to the highest office in the land, his style of speaking would change from crowd to crowd. During the latter stages of his presidency, he would become better known not for connecting with the American public, but with deceitfully, albeit truthfully, answering questions. He had learned that the more vague the question, the more vague the answer could be. When pinned down by details, Clinton's recollection often got hazy or counterattacks would be launched at his questioners.
Former Alabama football coach Dennis Franchione seems to have picked up a page of Clinton's answer book. Whether answering reporters in New Mexico, Texas or here, he always left one impression, while at the same time leaving the door open for another interpretation. While most of us would interpret "I'm happy here," to mean that he liked his circumstances, what he really meant was, "I could be happier somewhere else."
But taking statements out of context isn't just a charge leveled on the national or state level. It has been lobbed here as well. Local politicians have accused the area's media of mis-quoting them or interpreting their statements out of context. While that may or may not be the case, the statements that we as journalists love, and the statements that the public seems to clamor around, are those from people who speak from their heart. To borrow a phrase, "those who say what they mean and mean what they say."
Ten years ago, Ross Perot was a walking sound bite as he ran for the nation's top office. His quirky sayings and cut-to-the-chase method of asking and answering questions, made him one of the most successful third party candidates in recent history. His use of charts and graphs to simplify seemingly complex issues were revolutionary at the time and have been adopted by nearly all politicians today. Rather than getting bogged down explaining statistics, the charts allow speakers to visually demonstrate trends, both upward and downward.
In the field of athletics, coaches that many would consider "old school" are still among the favorites when queried by reporters. Readers get the sense that their candid answers, sprinkled with self-depreciating jokes, are honest, truthful and a breath of fresh air. When their teams perform poorly, they say so. They realize that the scoreboard tells the true story and don't try to hide behind excuses.
While reporters are sometimes faced with frustrating interview subjects, those who answer questions with one word answers or couch their answer in a river of jargon or nonsense, many of the people we talk to are generally open, honest and interesting. At the end of the day, those are the best interviews, and almost always lead to the best stories.
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