Saturday, December 27, 2008

Interview Transcript Reveals: NYT Kept Asking Kennedy The Same Question Over And Over.

The Times posted the complete transcript of its interview with Caroline Kennedy online tonight, and it diverges significantly -- both in tone and substance -- from the news account published in Sunday's paper.

It turns out, for example, that reporters David M. Halbfinger and Nicholas Confessore devoted more than two thirds of their questions to partisan politics and personal issues -- grilling her with repeated and aggressive questions about her motives for running, the tick-tock of her decision, her family's involvement in her candidacy, her wealth, her husband, and her children.

Their story declares that Kennedy "seemed less like a candidate than the idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way."

But anyone reading the transcript would come away with the impression that the reporters were less interested in defining Kennedy on the issues than in getting her to reveal anecdotes and narrative details from her private life, and portraying her as an entitled, out-of-touch candidate with insufficient experience. They asked Kennedy no questions about the economy, foreign policy, health care or immigration. They dwelled on education for a few minutes, but mostly to determine whether she -- or her friends -- may have misrepresented the extent of her involvement in the New York City schools.

But if anyone misrepresented in the interview, it was the Times reporters.

Take, for example, the end of the news account of the interview, in which Halbfinger and Confessore try to represent Kennedy as having artificially cut off the conversation by interrupting them:

As things wrapped up, a reporter tried to pose another question, but she interrupted him.

“I think we’re done,” she said.

But according to the transcript, it was Confessore and Halbfinger who brought the interview to an end; when seen in context, Kennedy's comment comes off far differently:

CONFESSORE: I think we’re done.

HALBFINGER: I think so, yeah.

CONFESSORE: Thank you very much for your time.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

HALBFINGER: If I can just throw one more question out there —

KENNEDY: I think we’re done.

By that time, Kennedy had reason to be happy that the reporters had offered to call it quits. For much of the interview, they'd pressed her for an answer to questions that seemed to have little bearing on her views on the issues. They seemed far more obsessed with getting Kennedy to admit that she only wanted the job by appointment, and wouldn't commit to running for the seat in a 2012 electoral contest. Kennedy kept demurring -- "This is where we are right now," she said, exasperated -- and they kept pressing. Finally, her frustration boiled over:

KENNEDY: Is that it? You guys want to ask that again? (Laughter)

HALBFINGER: Well, we did have another way of coming at it.

KENNEDY: Go ahead, let's ask that some more.

The conversation then turned to Teddy Kennedy; the reporters wanted to know if her uncle would have been disappointed had she chosen not to run. Kennedy replied that he only wants what's best for her, and that she didn't think he'd be disappointed. That answer didn't satisfy Confessore, and led to this embarrassing interchange that the reporters left out of their article:

CONFESSORE: I guess another way of thinking about it is that Jennifer Aniston movie, where she tells her boyfriend, ‘I want you to want to do the dishes,’ you know? And I wonder if Senator Kennedy wanted you to want to do it.

HALBFINGER: “The Break-Up.”

KENNEDY: (Laughter) I hope you’re going to put this in the article, not just the answer. OK?

HALBFINGER: I mean, was there anything wistful about it. Do you think he was hoping that you would really want to do it?

At which point Kennedy repeated her previous answer, and the conversation moved on to weightier topics -- such as pushing the candidate to reveal more narrative details about the moments leading up to her decision, and the effect the Senate seat would have on her family. After referring to varied professional ventures of her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, Halbfiinger interrupted her.

"He's had a really cool career," Halbfinger said. At last, something everyone could agree on!

The reporters then moved on to Kennedy's home life, and whether she had a household staff that might have provided her with management experience. As usual, they went at the topic with an aggressive, almost accusatory tone:

HALBFINGER: Do you have any?

KENNEDY: In my house, is that what you're asking me?

HALBFINGER: Yeah. It gets to the whole, is there a Nannygate issue down the road.

The tone got even harsher when it moved to money and wealth:

CONFESSORE: How much money do you live on each year?

KENNEDY: Um, you know, I’m not really going to answer those kinds of specific questions. If I’m chosen for this, I’m going to comply with every kind of disclosure that’s available. If the governor has questions about my finances, I’m happy to talk to him.

CONFESSORE: Is it $2 million? Is it less than $2 million? Is it more than $5 million? How much do you live on each year?

KENNEDY: Um, you know, as I said, if I’m selected, I’ll probably be able to answer all those questions, but I’m not going to go into that right now.

Reading the full transcript, there's one aspect of the conversation Confessore and Halbfinger got right: the tone.

"On an appearance Friday night on NY1, Ms. Kennedy was more lighthearted, and also more personal," the wrote. "But on Saturday morning, Ms. Kennedy was all business and seemed in a more lawyerly frame of mind."

Maybe it's because she was being cross-examined by the Times, in a case the paper seems to be building against her candidacy. What a remarkable turnabout in less than two weeks. And what a squandered opportunity by Halbfinger and Confessore, who turned their Kennedy interview into an inquisition, and their news account into a commentary calling her entire candidacy into question.

Kennedy may not deserve the Senate seat, but she does deserve better reporters on the beat than Halbfinger and Confessore.


Anonymous said...

If you read the transcript, it may seem as if Confessore and Halbfinger are cross-examining her -- "Is it $2 million? Is it less than $2 million? Is it more than $5 million? How much do you live on each year?" -- but if you listen to the tapes, the tone was friendly throughout, and at times Halbfinger especially sounded apologetic about asking such questions, in a "sorry we have to do this, it's our jobs" tone. In fact, it was Caroline who sounded haughty, as if sitting for reporters was something beneath her. Seriously, listen to the tapes. At one point she even lets out an exasperated huff, when the query was hardly offensive.


It would be interesting to hear the tapes, but the Times website only offers excerpts. Those don't include any audio of Halbfinger or Confessore asking questions. If the commenter can provide access to the tapes, we'll be happy to listen.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could - I do not have access to the full take, but I have heard it. (I am not Confessore or Halbfinger, but I do work at the Times.) I do appreciate your willingness to listen to the whole take, though, and I'm sorry I do not have the means to provide it. It does seem silly that they'd post the full transcript but not the full recording.