Statesman interview transcipts illuminate candidates

If you’re not loving the interviews with Colorado Senate candidaets in the Colorado Statesman, you’re not a news junkie.

They remind me, to some degree, of a transcribed talk-radio interview with a candidate. But talk-radio interviews, unlike the Statesman pieces, are conducted mostly by hosts who agree with the candidate or who aren’t very informed. (Local talk-radio interviews between conservatives and Craig Silverman are one partial exception, and there will be others, like, I hope, candidate interviews on Colorado Matters.)

The recent Statesman interviews mix chatty questions with arcane and tough ones. And the answers are kept short. Here’s an example from the Statesman’s interview with Jane Norton, regarding former McCain advisor and GOP heavyweight Charlie Black:

Statesman: What has been the role of Charlie Black in your campaign?

Norton: He’s been my brother in law (laughs).

Statesman: Right, and in terms of the campaign. What has been his involvement?

Norton: Oh I called him from time to time and asked for advice.

Statesman: Does he still provide ongoing advice to you?

Norton: Sure.

That’s the kind of questioning that makes for interesting reading for the news junkie, yes? Readers might have wanted to know what kind of advice Black gives Norton, but you can argue that would have been too much to ask. Other questioning revealed that Norton worked for the AARP and doesn’t exclude anyone from her events.

Contrast the Statesman’s questioning about Black to the lack of follow-up in The Denver Post’s exchange gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis, printed in this weekend’s Perspective section:

Denver Post: Would you have accepted the federal stimulus money? 

McInnis: You’ve got to look at what the strings attached are. Now we’ve got a lot of federal funds for this state …- our military bases, our highway things, and stuff like that. So you have to look at every one of those . . . . You [had] better read the fine print.

McInnis never answered the question, even though he’s on record as supporting Obama’s stimulus, but The Post let him go.

I’m not saying that the Post’s long interviews with McInnis and Dan Maes were a waste, by any stretch. Most of the questions were fairly tough and the answers clear. And it’s great more long interviews are planned for print. The transcriptions, allowing you to study the responses or lack thereof, are a window on the candidates that you don’t get anywhere else, even from long TV or radio exchanges.

And you have to give The Post credit for running them, given the shrinking news hole.

I asked Post opinion writer Chuck Plunkett, who called the Statesman interviews “great work,” why we don’t see more such transcripts online or in print:

“They [transcriptions] are hard to read, because of the non sequiturs and whatnot. The reality is that there are a few key moments that are the most useful, a few key distillations of thought that it took the other rambling to bring out. Normally, we don’t want to waste reader’s time. Our entire goal as journalists is to cut to the chase. But you are correct that for junkies and bloggers and folks who really care about the details, the long-form transcriptions can offer all kinds of riches.”

I asked Ernest Luning, who conducted the Statesman interviews along with Jody Hope Strogoff, how long the interviews take to produce. He replied via email:

“We have an actual transcriptionist who prepares a rough draft, then Jody and I spend some time making sure it’s an accurate transcript. The most painstaking editing involves punctuation — making sure sentences and so forth are reflected accurately, which can be difficult given how conversational the interviews are. Hard to say how long it takes, though I’d estimate maybe a dozen hours total to produce an hour-long transcript.”

Luning wrote that none of the candidates in the U.S. Senate race, the current focus of the “InnerView” series, resisted the Statesman’s interview request.

“Some of them have been difficult to schedule,” Luning emailed me. “But the candidates have been eager to sit down with us. They’re assured we’ll run the entire transcript, which makes sure everything is in accurate context, and they’re free to discuss a range of topics in as much detail and at as much length as they want.”

I asked Plunkett if candidates are generally willing to agree to open interviews. Here’s his reply:

The bigger the race, the less willing candidates are to sit down with reporters. Here’s an example from my time as a reporter — not an opinion writer — during the run-up to the 2008 presidential primaries.

 On the GOP side. Mitt Romney agreed to meet with me in person, but I had to fly Montana to meet him at the GOP state convention, and the understanding was I had only 20 minutes. (Possible translation, they must have bet I wouldn’t be able to fly out. But if that’s true, they were wrong. We had a good hook we really wanted to pursue.) Romney gave me better access once I got there. We went on for half an hour. With McCain, he agreed to talk with me by phone for 12 minutes shortly before an appearance in Denver. (McCain also met with our full board for an hour in the general. I joined the board shortly after the 2008 GOP Convention.) Huckabee’s camp never even returned my calls and messages. I didn’t reach out to the others.

 On the Democratic side. I got to talk, by phone, with Obama for six minutes. Can you imagine asking questions when you know up from the clock is running and you only have six minutes? If you ask a good question, the politician can just ramble out the clock. Never connected with Hillary.

 In none of the above cases did we publish the full interview, though I tried to make use of as many good quotes as possible. Newsprint is expensive. Our news hole, the space available for stories, has gotten much tighter over the years. Could I have published the transcription online? Sure, but a lot of the time the full interview isn’t that interesting. Politicians are difficult to pin down. They say a lot of things that don’t really mean anything. The tighter the race or the more delicate the issue, they do everything they can to avoid a clear answer.

Plunkett later added: “Though I said often that the interviews include a lot of painful filibustering, that’s not always the case, of course. The McCain interview impressed everyone at the table. Though we didn’t endorse him as a board, we remarked to ourselves that the John McCain we met was much better, more like the old McCain, than his handlers let him be on the trail and in debates. So looking back, that’s an interview we could’ve published, at least online.”

I’m hoping The Post posts videos of all its so-called endorsement interviews online, where partial video transcripts have been placed in the past.

For more Statesman interviews, which have appeared in recent couple years, (e.g. Dick Wadhams, Pat Waak, Dean Singleton, Josh Penry, Hank Brown, Bob Beauprez and Federico Peña) click here.

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