Friday, August 19

Walking Off: Christine O'Donnell Bails On CNN

Christine O'DonnellAs difficult as it is to put politics aside on political topics, they still make for great public relations puzzles. This one is offered up by Christine O'Donnell, who bailed on her CNN book interview after Piers Morgan asked the former Delaware Senate candidate her views about gay marriage.

To be fair to O'Donnell, despite Morgan's apparent politeness in the clip, the interview was more aggressive than most people know. Morgan had previously played clips from O'Donnell's past, including one where she once said she dabbled in witchcraft. He also brought up the MTV "masturbation sin" episode, priming her to become more emotional before moving in for a kill.

From CNN's point of view, raising questions about witchcraft, masturbation, and gay marriage, are "fair" because O'Donnell discusses religion in her book. (Besides, Morgan asks every Republican that question, recently Gov. Chris Christie and Mitt Romney.) On the other hand, it also suggests an agenda. Discrediting O'Donnell and others makes for great entertainment.

The real life reactions to this clip are generally mixed. In reading the comments piled on various media outlets covering the story, people are all over the map. Some will misconstrue this as a win for O'Donnell because enough conservatives and independents give her a majority on the walk off. Here's a rough summation of where people landed.

People with liberal leanings say it reinforces their belief that the Tea Party favorites are nut jobs. People with fiscally conservative leanings say that it's indicative of a liberal media afraid to talk about fiscal policy. And neocon Republicans, which are different from Tea Partiers, mostly lament that this illustrates why such personalities embarrass them.

Independents on the other hand are largely split, with varied opinions that are all underscored by a message that the media and politicians might wake up to — they actually want to talk about fiscal policy and the economy as opposed to fringe topics. Ergo, they are growing increasingly restless over polarizing social issues when the economy is in the foreground.

Still, that only provides background for the story and a thumbnail sketch on how people are reacting. Let's talk about the truth.

Is there ever a good time to walk off an interview?

Yes, but this wasn't one of those times. The public relations handlers botched it. O'Donnell obviously wasn't prepared, given that the line of questions Morgan had prepared were exactly what ought to have been anticipated by her publicist.

More importantly, there was a better counterpoint for O'Donnell, one that I think might have resonated with all parties. It goes something like this ...

"With all respect, Mr. Morgan, I think you just touched on exactly what is wrong with the state of our country today. People are unemployed, many are losing their homes, and the declining stock market is threatening retirement for millions. Yet, you want to talk about religion, masturbation, and sexual orientation. I think your priorities are confused. I wrote a book that is largely about fiscal policy and I think your viewers might agree that religion, masturbation, and sexual orientation — while important at times — take a back seat to knowing whether you are going to put food on the table tomorrow."

Anything Morgan would have pressed on after a statement like that, would have seemed foolish and trivial. But instead, her handlers prompted her to end the interview, with one of them even stepping in front of the camera. It's hard to take seriously.

The state of media relations and on-air interviews today.

The facts of media engagement are among the simplest, yet amazingly difficult, to master. While the media is allowed to ask any questions they want (even if some pretend agreement was reached prior to the show), interviewees are also allowed to circle back to whatever they want to talk about, provided they do so with tact. Obviously, no one has taught O'Donnell how to do it.

Likewise, while media personalities are allowed to ask the same question over and over, every interviewee ought to know that media personalities look foolish each time they ask the same question. In other words, let them ask and ask, at their own peril.

Interestingly enough, O'Donnell ought to have the gay marriage question down, whatever her views are. My guess is that she is soft on the issue because it rubs against four conflicting moral codes among four different types of Tea Party sympathizers and, possibly, two conflicting values of her own — a government that stays out of other people's personal business and preserving the definition of marriage according to religious beliefs.

Personal feelings or thoughts aside, I think the whole gay marriage question ought to be scrubbed. There are civil unions and religious unions. The state can neither bar nor force any church to adopt or prevent same sex marriages without any such law (either way) being an affront to the First Amendment. Maybe O'Donnell should have said that instead of catering to what she "thinks" her crowd wants to hear.

She might be surprised how people would respond if someone would just take the time to apply reason. And the media might be surprised too, if they would stop catering to their own sensational reporting styles and look at it objectively.

Incidentally, I did ask Piers Morgan where he stands on gay marriage via Twitter. And despite making himself part of the story, he declined to answer.
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