Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Anti-soundbite and its Uses to Officials

Do all officials answer reporters questions these days with a questions? No.  But does it help those who do wiggle out of a tight spot? Sure. Why do they do that? Have I said they do?

Do you get my drift here or do I have to explain? Just in case, here goes an explanation.

To my knowledge, the anti-soundbite question was originated by one Donald Rumsfeld, Republican muckety muck and master obfuscator since 1962. Last seen as George W, Bush's secretary of defense. In that position one could see him at Pentagon press briefings responding to reporters' questions by asking himself a question.

Typically, the question was aimed at only a portion of the issue, the more convenient part. The answer, or non-answer, was usually a few words that lent themselves to multiple interpretations.

The advantage of this rhetorical device is that it up-ended the soundbite, which is a piece of speech taken from longer statement. In television and radio time is money and, in any case, the viewers' and listeners' attention has been trained to fit 30-second commercials.

Imagine the following broadcast:
President Lincoln at Gettysburg said yesterday that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Asked about this comment, following a battle involving close to 50,000 casualties, the CEO of War Widows of America called Lincoln's remarks "insensitive."
The quote would have been a soundbite. It's the exact words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. Not all the words, but the ones this particular reporter -- from an early version of Fox News? -- deemed "newsworthy."

Now imagine Lincoln at a Rumsfeldian briefing:

REPORTER -- Did our forefathers mean for this civil war to happen?

LINCOLN -- Well, now, son, did they bring forth a new nation four score and seven years ago? Yes. But did they conceive it in liberty? One would think so. Didn't they state in the Declaration of Independence that they believed it as self-evident that "all men are created equal"? Sure, but notice the word "men." Are women mentioned there? I don't think so.

PRESS POOL (all male): [laughter]

See how the anti-soundbite question pulverizes the sounbdbite. What words are you going to select to quote? You have the statements "Yes," "One would think so," "Sure, but notice the word 'men'," and "I don't think so." The rest were arguably questions, not answers.

Even in paraphrase, what did the Rumsfeldian Lincoln actually affirm? Only that a new nation had been brought forth four score and seven years ago. Not much of a story.

Yet listen to the next broadcast and watch how many times officials of all kinds pretend to answer questions using this device. Examine what is said and notice how little the official has committed himself to any opinion or position and how easily, if questioned further, he can weasel out.

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