Thursday, October 02, 2008

Sarah Palin, Katie Couric, and the art of the softball question

“Softball question” is a silly metaphor: any anybody who has played softball seriously knows, softballs can be wickedly difficult to hit solidly when tossed by a skilled pitcher. This fact is obvious at the upper levels of fast-pitch softball, but I know those pitches aren’t what the metaphor calls to mind. Rather, it means to conjure the image of the high-arcing slow pitch.

The magic of a good slow-pitch tosser lies in the ability to require hitters to do something very hard that seems reasonably easy. If you can throw a low pitch that catches the front outside corner, then a high one that arcs through the back of the strike zone by the batter’s hands, you can humiliate a whole lot of hitters, including the present writer. Part of the humiliation comes from the knowledge that to the crowd, the task seems easy enough, and often, it seems manageable to the batter, too. It’s hard to pop out on a slow pitch and admit that you were just beaten.

It is in this sense that Katie Couric’s most devastating questions to Sarah Palin have been softballs. We are used to thinking of interview questions in the same misguided way we think of pitches: we think the toughest questions are the ones that regular people couldn’t even foul off. But in an interview, those questions create sympathy for the person trying to answer. If Couric had asked Palin to describe, with specific examples, her sense of the editorial differences between the Washington Post and the New York Times, everybody would have seen that to be a tough question. Palin could refuse to answer such a question, and many—probably most—people would react only by thinking less of Couric for asking it.

And that’s why such questions are not the hardest kind to answer. Instead, the very hardest questions seek out your weakest points and then give you all the flexibility you want in answering them. This approach cloaks the difficulty of the question with the apparent (but entirely false) generosity of flexibility. I’ll call this approach the Nasty Softball Question. I’ve seen a few masters of the NSQ, especially in graduate schoo, but Couric has outdone them all in her interview with Palin, and in a series of NSQs, the wickedest one Couric tossed was this:

And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

My goodness, that is a thing of beauty. It seems reasonable, even coddling. Every serious person reads some periodicals, right? And Sarah Palin has a degree in journalism! What could be more fair and friendly than asking her for some titles of newspapers and magazines?

But this is genuinely tough for someone in Palin’s position. Think of the answers she might give for newspapers. Modern Republican electoral strategy depends on the demonization of the most obviously authoritative papers, especially but not only the New York Times. I’ve seen some people accuse McCain of hypocrisy, for example, because he demonizes the Times but also crows when the paper agrees with him. But that’s the point of the strategy: if you frame the paper as giving a Democratic interpretation of every issue, you discredit the stuff you don’t like and increase the propaganda value of the stuff you agree with. But the Rovian undermining the most journalistically authoritative newspapers put Palin in a bind: she couldn’t cite the obvious choices, and naming anything else would risk reinforcing the impression that she is provincial and unready. The best newspaper I can think of for Palin would be The Wall Street Journal. And how do you think Uncle John McCain would have liked his campaign to be linked more closely with Wall Street right now?

(Later update: Bingo! given another shot, Palin offers the NYT, the WSJ, and the Economist. Then she adds a defensive bit about economic successes as a governor to head off the problems with the financial publications. An excellent strategic answer, given breezily but showing the precise calibration of days of backstage prep.)

I can imagine effective answers for Palin to give, answers that would establish her as a serious reader but add a bit of aggressive irony—I read the Times because I need to know what you journalists are doing to us, that sort of thing. But that’s an answer people like McCain or Giuliani can get away with; it’s much harder to pull off that attitude when introducing yourself to a national audience. Again, I’m not saying good answers weren’t possible, just that this was a ferocious NSQ.

And it was all the more ferocious for one more crucial reason: it’s an easy question for Democrats to answer. The question is an NSQ for Palin precisely because she’s a creation of the right-wing base. Couric has taken advantage of this factor repeatedly: I mean the idea that a question seems fair if you ask it to both sides. (This campaign has featured this false fairness more than previous ones, I think.) The Supreme Court question illustrates the point. Yes, it’s a question Palin should be able to answer, certainly better than she did. The standard question she was probably ready to answer--“What do you look for in a Supreme Court justice?”--would have allowed the kind of generalities she was ready to state, and the request for a specific case shouldn’t have thrown her so badly. At the same time, there was no chance that the question would phase Biden, whose experience would give him a variety of ready answers. The fact that Couric asked both candidates the same question did not make it equally difficult, and I see in Couric’s questions a pattern: Couric used the surface appearance of fairness and generosity to hit Palin’s weak points, in ways precisely calibrated to accentuate the Democrats’ strengths. And all this in a way that the McCain people can’t argue against directly.

When you watch a debate or see questions asked to job applicants, speakers, and so forth, keep an eye out for these properties:

1. Does the question seem to relate to the person's declared interests or ambitions, but actually shift the ground slightly away from where he or she feels solid?

2. Does the question then let the person pick his or her own example, thus raising the expectations that the person will sound authoritative?

3. Does the question invite an obvious answer that is or seems to be a trap?

If the question meets two or (especially) three of these standards, you're witnessing a Nasty Softball Question. Be ready to witness a humiliating pop out to the catcher.

1 comment:

Hilary said...

Sounds like nearly every fellowship interview I've ever been in!

That said, this strategy can also be a very successful way of drawing an interviewee out of themselves ("shifting the ground," i.e. forcing them away from canned answers) and allowing them to shine (i.e. giving them the chance to "sound authoritative"). Though the interviewer is certainly probing the limits of knowledge/comfort, often just as important as the actual answer are the illustration of the thought process behind it and the execution. That is to say, the interviewer is often as interested in hearing how you think (and how you express yourself) as what you think.

What makes it "nasty" in one case (Palin) and a simple softball in another (Biden) is that you hit those limits of knowledge/comfort much sooner in the former, while also exposing that for all the coaching in "what you think" and how to express it, little work has been paid to the "how you think" side. Is it wrong for Couric to attempt to expose these deficits (where they exist), rather than simply allowing the candidate to run free on their talking points [the major criticism, I might add, of the rules restricting Gwen Ifill last night]?

I think you give Palin a lot of credit with your thoughtful deconstruction of the politization of MSM sources. I instead have the feeling she's not an authentic newspaper consumer and was embarrassed to reveal exactly how little she does consume and from what sources. [This clip starting around 1:15 spells it out nicely.] Further (if Palin is given your benefit of the doubt), is Couric to fault for right-wing conservatives painting themselves in a corner for their characterization of the media?

This post is provocative, but I'm not certain that I agree with your own politization of Couric's questions, which seems to suggest that they were written so that one candidate would appear better than another. Instead, I believe her questions came from basic expectations of what someone running for high office should be (in your examples, literate both culturally and otherwise as well as reasonably knowledgeable about significant judicial decisions influencing the major issues of the day), with the shift you identify in order to better illustrate how the candidates think. In this case, one candidate better fulfills these assumptions. I'm not certain how this is different from any other interview process where one candidate is simply more qualified than another.

I know you're not Katie Couric, but can you come up with a NSQ which Biden would have difficulty answering while Palin would have the upper hand?