Maybe Not So Intelligent

When you take part in a news interview without having the information the public would expect you to know, there’s no media training in the world that can help you.

If you’ve attended my media training, you’ve heard this before. In fact, I even have a name for it: The Sarah Palin Principle, a reference to the former candidate’s media challenges during the 2008 campaign.

But after today, perhaps the concept should be renamed The James Clapper Principle, after the U.S. Intelligence Chief who illustrated it beautifully during an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer.

Watch as Clapper faces questions about a terror arrest he knew nothing about (Relevent portion begins at 3:40).

Was it Really His fault?

Some may say this is not a true example of an interview mistake because the blame more likely belongs with Clapper’s aides, for failing to brief him properly. Others will insist the buck ultimately should stop with Clapper himself. But in the end, it makes no difference. Regardless of whose fault this was, it illustrates the dire need to be prepared for every interview. If an ally of the U.S. arrests terror suspects on the day of your interview, it is beyond imperative that you be prepared to address (notice I didn’t write “answer”) questions regarding the incident; particularly if your job title has the words “intelligence” and “director” in it.

The Gaffe Becomes the Story

Clapper’s lack of knowledge of the London terror arrests may not have been earth shattering, but it was news. And now it’s the most memorable moment of the interview. Diane Sawyer deserves credit for circling back to Clapper’s claims of ignorance. The truth is, there wasn’t much of a story there, until Clapper haplessly created one.

The Difficulties of Damage Control in Real Time

It’s a primal fear among interviewees: getting a question for which you have no answer. It is far easier to prevent that from happening than to fix it once it has. Once Clapper realized he didn’t know, he could have tried subtly bridging to a key message, or deferred the question to one of his co-interviewees. But Sawyer is no cub reporter, and these tactics likely would have failed. Instead, Clapper simply came clean. He didn’t pretend to know, guess, or obtrusively change the subject. Whether his sincerity will ultimately mitigate this Media Disaster remains to be seen.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.