Presidential Teachable Moments
On July 24, 2009, President Obama made an unscheduled appearance at the daily White House press briefing to back off remarks he’d made in a nationally-televised, prime-time news conference two days earlier about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Lewis Gates Jr. In his July 24 remarks, the president said he hoped the incident could become a “teachable moment.”
Taking the president’s advice, I’m turning his performance at the July 22 news conference into a media training teachable moment.
Here’s the background: At the very end of the July 22 news conference, which was focused up until that point on health care reform, President Obama called on a reporter from his old hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. She asked the president about the disorderly conduct arrest of Dr. Gates in his own home by Police Sergeant James Crowley. The police were responding to a 911 call about a possible break-in after a neighbor saw Dr. Gates and his taxi driver trying to work open the stuck door of the professor’s house after he returned home from a trip to China. Dr. Gates, 61, grey-haired, five-foot-six inches tall and always dressed with distinction, is one of the country’s preeminent African American scholars. Despite his protestations that the lived in the house with the stuck door and that he was a Harvard professor, Dr. Gates was taken down to a police station in handcuffs and then released, with no charges being filed. President Obama, responding to the question, was not so lucky: he broke into jail with his answer.
Breaking into jail is a term I use in media training workshops for answers that get you into trouble you didn’t need to get into. The most startling breaking-into-jail moment in presidential news conference history waste Richard M. Nixon’s “I am not a crook” answer given in 1972 at the height of the Watergate scandal. No one had asked him if he was a crook, he just brought up the negative on his own. Nixon broke one of the cardinal rules of interviews: he introduced a negative himself. President Obama didn’t do that, but he did break into jail. Here’s how he answered the question. I’ve put the “teachable moments” into boldface and I’ll return to consider each of them at the end of the full answer:
Question (from Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times): “Thank you, Mr. President. Recently Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?”
Answer: “Well, I should say at the outset that ‘Skip’ Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house, there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place — so far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into — well, I guess this is my house now so — (laughter) — it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago — (laughter) — here I’d get shot. (Laughter.)
“But so far, so good. They’re reporting — the police are doing what they should. There’s a call, they go investigate what happens. My understanding is at that point Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in, I’m sure there’s some exchange of words, but my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house. And at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct — charges which are later dropped.
“Now I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.
“As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in this society. That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made.
“And yet the fact of the matter is, is that this still haunts us. And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and oftentime for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be.
“All right, thank you, everybody.”
Let’s pull out the media training teachable elements: “I don’t know all the facts.” If you don’t know the facts, don’t talk about it; you’re likely to get into trouble.
I mean, if I was trying to jigger into — well, I guess this is my house now so — (laughter) — it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago — (laughter) — here I’d get shot. I teach clients to leave comedy to the comedians. The latter part of the joke may be an exaggeration for comedic effect, but is something you say in a bar, not from the presidential podium. A joke that works in video may fall flat when printed on the page and even a good gag line can fall flat if not delivered correctly.
[Irrelevant to media training is this additional observation: I don’t think it’s a very good idea for a president who has received more death threats than all of his predecessors to raise this topic. For those of us who remember the Secret Service’s signal ineptitude in protecting Gerald Ford (two near misses with guns, one near miss with an automobile) and Ronald Reagan (shot and wounded outside the presidential limousine while surrounded by agents), there’s something very creepy about a president joking about getting shot.]
On to the most damaging part of the answer: Now I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home….
First the president repeated that he did not know all the facts, giving him a perfect out for not commenting further. Then he said any of us would be pretty angry. Maybe, maybe not. If a cop came to your door and politely said there’d been a report of a break-in and are you okay, would you be angry? If a cop came to your door and challenged you within your own home, would you be angry? If a cop came to your door, had his hand on his holster and accused you of being a burglar, would you be angry? In the first situation, you might smile and assure the officer there was no break-in, in the second situation, you might become angry, in the third situation you would likely be more fearful than angry. Also your reaction would be influenced by prior personal and acquaintance encounters with the police. Since we, like the president, weren’t there, we can’t know the tone and attitude that Sgt. Crowley used when he confronted Professor Gates, nor do we know Dr. Gates’ state of mind following a long flight from China and the frustration of a jammed front door.
Finally, the president says “the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.” The president has said twice he doesn’t know the facts, then he offers as fact the assertion that Dr. Gates had proven that he was in his own home. (The police report indicated that Dr. Gates showed his Harvard ID, which would not have his address on it. But the police report’s credibility is suspect because it also says the 911 caller waited in front of the Gates house and told Sgt. Crowley two black men with knapsacks had forced their way in. The caller vehemently denied mentioning race or knapsacks to Sgt. Crowley.)
The critical words here are “acted stupidly.” This is answering stupidly. The substitution of “overreacted” or “appeared to have overreached” for “acted stupidly” would have diffused the answer some. But still, the President was responding needlessly — he had twice said he didn’t know the facts of the case.
President Obama, is usually very good in interviews and news conferences. His answers, while a little on the long side, are usually cerebral and reasoned. He goes into media encounters with an agenda and normally has the self-discipline to stick to his agenda points. On July 22, he departed from his customary style; he appears not to have had an agenda point for this question (a question that should have been anticipated), he answered a question after acknowledging he didn’t have all the facts, and his answer was based more on emotion than on fact.
So what media training “teachable moment” lessons do I draw from it all?
1. Prepare an agenda point and answer for all likely questions.
2. Never answer a question if you don’t know the facts; don’t assume or speculate.
Answer from your head, not from your heart.
The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has actually turned the entire incident into a good teaching moment for middle and high school students. They have come up with lesson plans you can view at: http://www.teachablemoment.org/high/gates.html
And The Christian Science Monitor ran an editorial I recommend. You can read it at: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0731/p08s01-comv.html
Finally, the best quote to come out of the incident was from Professor Gates who, after the “beer summit” at the White House with Sgt. Crowley, the president and Vice President Joe Biden, told the New York Times, “When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.”
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