Facing the hack: a very unfair fight

Facing the hack: a very unfair fight

Where do journalists get off being so lofty and supercilious? I hate to say how often this question was thrown at me during my long years in mainstream hackery. We have attitude; we have been known to swagger.

Perhaps I can explain.

Centuries ago – was it at Runnymede? – the people were handed the right to know, and we have been standing by that idea ever since. It has served us well.

So it is hardly surprising that an interviewer will assume the role of inquisitor. On a more basic level, he or she is hoping for something unplanned to pop out and boost the story line. An honest journo will admit that half the game is in the accidents.

In fact a leading American hack once defined interviewing as “The art of getting people to say something they did not intend to say.”

At the very least, the reporter thinks his or her job is a lot more worthy than your buy-cheap-sell-dear caper. He may even believe he could do your job better than you.

It would be wise to keep this in mind when agreeing to an interview or worse, being ambushed. You may otherwise find yourself asking how you ended up in this fix, and by the way where is my PR guy?

Explaining the journalist’s mind is risky business, but it won’t take long.

I have made a list to help explain what is going on here.

  1. First, the reporter believes in the right of the media to know everything. Of course this is a fiction but perhaps you didn’t know that. You have the right to tell it your way. This is not a court of law, it is journalism and it is unregulated.
  2. The reporter operates to his or her own agenda and is not about to tell you what it is. Sometimes you will be able to guess. Sometimes you will not find out until you are in print.
  3. Beware of the firm handshake and toothy grin. The reporter will read your desk and compliment you on your cute kids. You are now at ease; you are now defenceless.
  4. The reporter is comfortable with being superficial. Climbing the media career ladder has required instant expertise in matters you would not believe (sewage treatment costs, small-time council chicanery, crop yields). Ten minutes on Google and he’s good to go. You are just the next new thing.
  5. The interrogation seems to be taking a nasty turn. Is my company’s internal conflict the only subject of interest here? Yes.
  6. Toward the end of the allotted time, the questioning has become ever more probing. Does this reporter know more than I thought he knew? Probably not, but somehow it seems so.

Not to worry. Nothing I said will jeopardize my job. Surely he or she will not want to compromise me, no matter what I just said. And what did I just say? I can’t remember.

Article date

September 17th, 2014

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is an international writer and journalist based in Bordeaux.

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