By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host
NEW YORK — The recently fired head coach (subsequently hired by another franchise) made it his policy to refuse to answer questions unless they were actually questions, as opposed to hanging statements that invite a comment.
Many coaches would rather be anywhere else than at a post game press conference, especially after a tough loss. Indeed, interviewers should be sensitive to the moment and try to phrase their tough questions carefully so as not to appear to be mercilessly piling on. But many times, it is the subject who is the bully, and you can’t let that stand.
Many years ago, I questioned a baseball manager with a similar chip on his shoulder and he gave me some contradictory advice. He said on one hand that managers should never get into disputes with companies that “buy ink by the gallon,” but he also suggested that he worked hard to prepare for his job and he expected reporters to be equally dedicated.
Later in that interview, I asked a question that he said he’d answered months before. I replied that I hadn’t seen that response and if I hadn’t, I was sure that many of my listeners hadn’t either. He gritted his teeth and gave a terse synopsis of his earlier statement.
I left the interview feeling uneasy, even though I had spent considerable time researching this lengthy piece. Later, I spoke to a number of reporters who had covered this manager and asked if they recalled him answering the question I had posed. None of them remembered being given a specific answer to that question.
To this day, I don’t know if he had in fact responded in a obscure forum that few people saw, or if he was blowing me off because he didn’t want to answer a tough question. But the lesson I took from this was never to let a subject intimidate you by suggesting that you are biased or worse, unworthy of his time.
Most subjects will take a statement that you leave hanging and comment on it as if it was an actual question. But for the few who don’t pick up that you are issuing a thought that requires a rejoinder as one would in normal conversation, there is a simple solution. Just tag on, “is that not the case?” or “would you agree?” or “what is your response?” or even a simple “no?”.
Of course, even with perfectly phrased questions, an irritable subject may give a monosyllabic reply. Then a quick, “and why is that?” or “please expand on that” is your follow up. Granted, you still may get stonewalled, but at least you will have not allowed a non-answer to pass. You might take it a step further, something like, “please go through your thought process,” and see if that elicits an acceptable response.
Some managers are like teflon — by virtue of their superior records —- and can treat the media with contempt and get away with it.
They may even engender some sympathy with the public who resent the media’s intrusion. But eventually, even the great ones suffer through losing seasons, and if they’ve antagonized reporters over time, they can’t expect the soft landing that might be accorded more gracious subjects. But it is important not to let personal antipathy influence your reporting. Your audience deserves to know if a given subject has treated reporters poorly, and thus is being dealt with more severely than one who has always acted professionally and with respect.
Richard Neer is a sports talk host at WFAN, New York and an anchor on A Touch of Grey. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.