Interview technique

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From "President Obama's Full Interview With NBC's Chuck Todd", NBC News (Meet The Press) 9/7/2014:

Speaker Time Transcript
Obama: 0:40-0:50 uh ISIL poses a broader threat uh because of its territorial ambitions in uh Iraq a- and Syria, but the good news is …
Obama: 3:45-4:00 And we've seen the savagery uh not just in terms of how they dealt with uh the two uh Americans that had been taken hostage but uh the killing of thousands uh of innocents in– in Iraq uh thousands of innocents in Syria
Obama: 6:57-7:17 But what is absolutely clear is that ISIL, which started as Al Qaeda in Iraq and uh arose out of the U.S. invasion there and uh was contained because of the enormous efforts of our troops there then shifted to Syria, has metastasized, has grown…
Obama: 8:06-8:18 We've got to do more effective diplomatic work to eliminate the- the schism between Sunni and Shia that has been fueling so much of the violence in Syria, in Iraq …
Todd: 8:25-8:29 You've not said the word "Syria" so far in our conversation.

Say what?

President Obama said the word "Syria" four times earlier in the conversation, most recently about 8 seconds before Mr. Todd uttered this blatant falsehood. So how could this question have come out of Todd's mouth?

I'm baffled.

Possible answers:

(1) Chuck Todd is suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder that seriously impairs his short-term memory.

(2) Chuck Todd is the victim of a compulsion to destroy his own reputation.

(3) Chuck Todd meant to complain about Obama's non-use of some other word or phrase, say "invasion", but "Syria" slipped out instead.

(4) Chuck Todd is actually an interviewing automaton, which pays no attention to the responses of its guests, but merely reads pre-prepared questions provided by its handlers.

(5) Chuck Todd was counting on his producers to edit the interview after the fact, so as to make his statement appear to be true.

Of these, some version of (4) seems the least implausible to me. At the end of the interview, Todd claims to have 35 additional questions that he hasn't had a chance to ask yet, so maybe he had his questions written out in order, and one of his writers used bad predictive judgment in crafting the one about Obama not having used the word "Syria".

On the other hand, (5) might also be involved, since editorial practices of exactly that type seem to be standard practice in the industry.


Update — NBC's "Meet The Press Transcript- September 7, 2014" does indeed edit out three of Obama's four mentions of Syria, including especially the one in sentence just before Todd's assertion that "You've not said the word, 'Syria,' so far in our conversation." No indication is given that this editing has occurred.

After a commercial break, in a different studio context with various media talking heads, Todd says:

Part one of my interview there. Some of you may have noted that I said the president hadn't mentioned the word "Syria" at all in one of my questions. He had mentioned it, but he hadn't said whether he was taking military action there.

So the commenters are correct who hypothesized that when Todd says "You've not said the word 'Syria'", he meant "You haven't said what I want you to say about Syria".

Update #2 — David Letterman's take:



  1. Dick Margulis said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    (6) First-day-on-the-job jitters and he'll get better as he goes along? (Pure speculation, as I have no clue who Chuck Todd is other than the new host of Meet the Press, according to my newsfeed, and thus have no basis on which to judge his journalistic chops).

  2. bks said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:46 am



  3. Toma said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:48 am

    I'll bet most of it is on (4). He was so focused on asking the questions he wanted to ask or on what he would say to the president next that he didn't pay close attention to his responses. I'm giving Todd the benefit of the doubt here. I don't know whether he's a Democrat hater and trying to trap the president or trying to make him look bad in an edited version of the interview.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:48 am

    I believe I've done things that stupid in conversation. It may be a neural disease, but it doesn't seem to be degenerative (yet). Things that I expect to see or hear may fade into the background, and then I forget them.

    On the subject of jitters, it would be nice if someone in Todd's position were the kind of person who does better, rather than worse, in the professional situations that make him most nervous. But I'm not one to talk.

    On the other side of interviewing technique, I find it interesting that Pres. Obama didn't correct him.

  5. Lane said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    Journalists are addicted to this trope: "The word X did not appear one time in Mr. Y's speech," etc. They like it so much that they can't give it up even when it embarrasses them publicly.

    I saw it the other week in Germany; a journalist thought he got in a good zinger by asking the economy minister (presenting the government's digital strategy) why "The word surveillance [Überwachung] doesn't appear one time in your strategy." Ooh, burn. The minister replied with annoyance "We don't do surveillance. Our job is data protection [Datenschutz], and that's why there's a section on data protection and privacy."

  6. Lane said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:56 am

    Also, as Toma says, it is surprisingly hard to do intelligent on-camera interviews, so some part of "he wasn't listening to the answers; he was focusing on not fluffing his questions to the most powerful man in the world" is probably the real culprit, but of course his nervousness caused a mega-fluff.

    To Jerry's point, Obama had no trouble steering our editor-in-chief's interview to the topic he wanted to discuss. He transitions the interview himself:

    Obama: "Anything on the US economy? I noticed the occasional cover story saying how unfriendly to business we are."

  7. X said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:59 am

    (6) Reality has become so liberally biased that (like a dog whistle) it is no longer perceptible to ordinary human senses.

    Possible overlap with (2) Todd is attempting to boost his reputation among persons whose connection to reality is only tenuous.

    Less snarkily, (7) Todd is employing an adversarial conversation style where listening is not as important as bullying your opponent or at least making yourself look like a tough guy.

  8. Alex said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:01 am

    Actually he said "Syria" in every sentence, for me this was a poor attempt of a joke or sarcasm.

  9. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    I think there is a quite widespread practice of saying 'They make no mention of X' when it would be more correct to say 'They do not say the thing about X which I think they ought to say'. It may well be that there is a particular point about Syria which Todd thinks Obama ought to be making.

  10. Paul said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    My theory is that Mr. Todd has mentally divided the region corresponding to the two countries of Syria and Iraq into three or more regions in his head. a) Syria, the region controlled by Bashar al Assad b) Iraq, the area under control of the Iraqi government. c) The hazy border region of Iraq-Syria under the control of ISIL.

    All four occurrences are about c), and even though the word Syria was said, it might not register as having said anything about region a).

  11. Tamarack said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    The problem with Paul's theory is that Chuck Todd isn't even remotely intelligent enough to hold such a complicated thought.

  12. Matthew McIrvin said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    (6) Chuck Todd was counting on his viewers' minds and post-interview political chatter to edit the interview after the fact, so as to make his statement appear to be true.

  13. un malpaso said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:26 am

    The real question here is, is Chuck Dodd self-aware? And how would one know? Is there a Turing test to help?

  14. un malpaso said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    #ftfm Todd, not Dodd…

  15. D.O. said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    I'll add to Andrew (not the same one) and Paul that You've not said the word "Syria" in Mr. Todd's question can be unpacked as "You did not discuss overall situation in Syria, which includes Assad and his non-ISIS enemies". Mr. Todd's formulation was clumsy, but hardly brain-dead.

  16. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:58 am

    And more to D.O.'s point: think of it as a straightforward case of linguification. To "say the word 'Syria'" here stands in for "talk about operations within Syria" or some other more "robust" formulation. One might as well complain about someone using "literally" to mean "figuratively".

    (It could have been worse. Todd might have complained that all of Obama's references to Syria were passive…)

  17. Frankly said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 10:28 am

    Methane poisoning. Poor Mr. Todd has had his head so deeply inserted into his own personal methane factory for so long that there is permanent damage to his cognitive abilities.

    The rest of you can make excuses about Chuckie having alternative meanings to the phrase "you have not mentioned" but only I am concerned about his well being.

  18. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

    Has anyone looked at the interview as aired, to confirm or disprove (5)?

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    It's also a bit odd because one could introduce the topic by saying (if one rightly or wrongly believed it to be accurate) something like "we haven't talked about Syria yet," whereas just noting that the interviewee has not yet uttered the word "Syria" ought to be only worth mentioning if there were a previous question where one would have reasonably expected that word to come up, because even if the interviewee hadn't uttered the word "Syria" the interviewer would look foolish if the interviewee could riposte with "well, Chuck, I hadn't mentioned Syria because so far you've only been asking me questions about tax policy." So here it almost seems like to make sense of the situation one would need to figure out which prior question(s) Todd thought he had asked and thought should have elicited a Syria-mentioning response but had not done so (which would not need to be the same as any of the questions that did, in fact, elicit a Syria-mentioning response). Although that assumes the whole interview is in standard Q&A setting where the interviewer is formally supposed to be controlling the agenda even if the interviewee subtly or unsubtly tries to talk about what he wants to talk about by giving "answers" that are not always directly responsive to the actual questions asked. In the sort of setting where e.g. the President opens with a few minutes talking about whatever he wants to talk about before opening up to questions, it's a fairer point to say that, when given the opportunity to set the agenda for the discussion, he didn't choose to bring up topic X (where "not using word Y" is an imperfect approximation for that). Or at least it would be a fairer point if the claim about what hadn't been said was empirically accurate . . .

  20. GeorgeW said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

    I suspect that "Syria" was short for "Syria strategy" which Obama had recently, clumsily said that he did not have and for which he has been widely criticized.

  21. Lance said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

    This is all kind of sad. This could have been a lingustic point about the way we use the phrase "you haven't mentioned X"–and I think that Andrew and D.O. are right, that Todd was using it to mean "you haven't talked about a particularly salient fact about X", and it seems to me that the rest of his question, and Obama's answer, suggest that both of them were interpreting it that way. Instead, it's a series of rather crude ad hominem attacks on Todd. (Well, the ones in the comments section are crude, calling him not intelligent and methane poisoned. The ones in the original post are less crude, but still pretty ad hominem.)

  22. Darkwhite said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    Nearly every conversation has bits and pieces which look silly if you insist on interpreting them a hundred percent literally. The most interesting thing about all of this is how eager some are to forget about this in an effort to ridicule someone they don't like.

  23. Alex Bollinger said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

    some combination of 4 and 5. He was too busy making sure his "I'm listening face" is convincing in the screen behind Obama that he forgot to actually listen.

  24. Auntturtle said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 11:10 pm

    Paul said,
    Almost certainly, Paul has it right: what Mr Todd had in mind was that particular problem represented by the Syria controlled by Assad and the Allewites as opposed to the Syria, as in Sham, controlled by ISIS.

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    My theory is that Mr. Todd has mentally divided the region corresponding to the two countries of Syria and Iraq into three or more regions in his head. a) Syria, the region controlled by Bashar al Assad b) Iraq, the area under control of the Iraqi government. c) The hazy border region of Iraq-Syria under the control of ISIL.

    All four occurrences are about c), and even though the word Syria was said, it might not register as having said anything about region a).

  25. Mark W. said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 2:55 am

    (6) The Illuminati have conditioned Chuck Todd to be unable to consciously perceive the word "Syria" — they're branching out from "fnord".


    More seriously, this thread reminds me of a newspaper item I read during the run-up to the 2004 election. The item was a transcript of a Kerry campaign TV ad, followed by the newspaper's analysis of the ad. The analysis included the statement that "The ad does not mention President Bush…" (or words very close to this).

    Except, the ad (as transcribed immediately above) DID mention President Bush.

  26. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

    Regarding my comment above about whether the repetitions were actually aired: David Letterman picked up on this and ran an excerpt from the interview:

  27. Rubrick said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

    @Darkwhite: "Nearly every conversation has bits and pieces which look silly if you insist on interpreting them a hundred percent literally."

    How — or perhaps more to the point why — would one interpret "You've not said the word 'Syria' so far in our conversation" anything other than literally? It's about as straightforward a statement of (alleged) fact as one could imagine. If Todd meant "You've not described your intentions in Syria" he was perfectly free to say that instead.

  28. Darkwhite said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    Rubrick: It's perfectly unremarkable hyperbole. Language always breaks down if you move from charitable interpretation to trying to score rhetorical points. Given that the interviewer is at least sane, he probably didn't fail to notice Obama mentioning repeatedly the word Syria. So it would be reasonable to assume that it is a figure of speech, roughly equivalent to 'You seem to be skirting around the issue of how to deal with ISIS' presence in Syria (instead focusing on how to deal with them in Iraq).'.

    If you read the full transcript, you'll notice that the question is snipped – the rest of what the interviewer asks, makes the meaning clear enough that Obama doesn't appear to have much trouble understanding it – judging by the answers he gives.

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