Interview to Frank Sesno
“Our political discourse has gotten so much worse. It is coarser and nastier, more personal and vindictive”
Gisela Rubach, @GiselaRubach
Por José Luis Izaguirre, @jl_izaguirre92
As an Emmy Award-winning professional, Frank Sesno is an internationally renowned journalist. He has worked researching topics of public interest for more than 30 years, many of them covering the news from the White House. Sesno has specialized in interviews and has interviewed many US Presidents as well as other international Heads of State and Government such as Benjamin Netanyahu. He has studied and shared knowledge about the different techniques and skills that should be put in place when interviewing and has published pieces of research about this topic.
Frank Sesno will be one of the main speakers at the 5th International Political Communication Congress in Bilbao this June.
As a journalist, you have thoroughly talked and wrote about the importance of questions in interviews and the different techniques and skills that should be applied when wanting specific information from someone. In fact, your book Ask More categorises questioning and adds value to the art of making the right questions. In your opinion, what are the most important elements an interview to a politician should have?
The most important elements for an interview with a politician revolve around preparation and intent. First, the interviewer must do his or her homework, be fully briefed and aware of the various sides of the issue, armed with facts to follow up, challenge, correct, and recognize error or inconsistency. To drill down into an issue, the interviewer must know the politician’s previous positions, statements, promises, and pledges. Almost as important, an interviewer should have a specific outcome in mind going into the interview. Are you seeking information, such as facts and figures, or are you looking for an explanation, why a particular decision was taken or what the intended consequences may be? Having an outcome in mind is essential. Some interviews are informational. Some interviews revolve around context or explanation. Others are intended to fill in one or more sides of a debate. Still others are confrontational, seeking to hold a politician accountable to his or her previous words or actions. Knowing what you are talking about and what you are after will make any interview more informed, engaging, and purposeful. This is especially true for interviews with politicians who are so skilled at dodging tough questions and issuing vague answers.
Curiosity has always been the perfect stimulus that gives an impulse to knowledge and without curiosity, the history of humankind would not have been the same. How important do you think curiosity is and what is the status of human curiosity today?
Curiosity and the capacity it inspires to learn and create knowledge is what sets human beings apart. Curiosity is the cornerstone of engagement. It is the vital element to discovery, empathy, and progress. In some ways, we have never displayed more curiosity. Billions of searches on Google and other sites show that we are voracious hunters and gatherers of information. Yet, our curiosity is sometimes distorted by this technology at our fingertips. We ask and answer our questions at warp speed. But do we linger long enough to dig down and learn in detail? Is our curiosity suffering because we are so connected and move so fast? Certainly, the global rise of populism, the rejection in many quarters of fact and evidence-based thinking, and the surge in opinion-driven media suggest that the validation of ideas trumps all. I am a stubborn believer in the bottomless pit of human curiosity. But I am concerned that we have created a “quick hit culture” where we are rewarded by fast answers at the expense of deliberate and delicious inquiry driven by insatiable curiosity. It is time for curiosity to make a comeback. We should dedicate ourselves to that.
Knowing where to find the answer to one’s curiosity is important. The development of fake news and its consequence in today’s world is an issue of recent concern. How do you think fake news should be managed by politicians, journalists and the public?
First, “fake news” should be defined and the term should be banned. Then it should be managed aggressively and transparently. I refer to “false news,” the kind that is deliberately and maliciously designed to confuse, distort, and distract, intended to sow discord and confusion. Once defined, it needs to be called out by penalizing the bad stuff and reinforcing information that can be substantiated and for which there is genuine accountability. Every news organization, for example, should be pursuing an open and candid conversation with its audience, explaining how it gathers the news, how it makes difficult decisions, and why it covers a story in the way it does. Politicians and the public must be educated to be wary of “false news” and to look for telltale signs: a story that takes a side without reflecting opposing points of view, that trumpets one position, celebrates a leader, ignores unpopular or unpleasant facts. With emerging technology, we must educate news consumers about spotting bogus video or audio soundbites that literally put false words in people’s mouths. Politicians and the public alike should insist on transparency. Everyone should ask these questions: where does this information come from? Who is the source? What is his or her agenda? What are the trade-offs and risks and unexplained consequences of a given position? “False news” is often difficult to separate from legitimate news because it may look or sound like a traditional story. But buyer beware: false news is one of the most corrosive forces in democratic societies because it has the capacity to turn people against each other and fundamentally undermine confidence in our institutions in ways that may jeopardize the very freedoms that gave false news a chance to flourish in the first place.
This month’s magazine will cover many issues related to Latin America and political communication in the region. The relationship between the United States and some Latin American countries since the election of President Trump, especially with Mexico, has not been ideal. How do you think the relationship between the United States and Latin America should be shaped?
The relationship between the United States and Latin America is a long and difficult one. I spent a number of years covering wars, politics, diplomacy and economics in the region. The single most important determinant in the relationship between the United States and Latin America is represented by one word: respect. The US must have it and convey it. Latin American nations must see it and believe it to be genuine. Name calling and accusation do not convey respect. Certainly, this needs to be a two-way street. But the United States sets the tone and bears the lion’s share of responsibility in establishing a dialogue that is fundamentally constructive and respectful.
There are important elections taking place in Latin American countries this year with many vital issues at stake: Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and others. How do you think the results of these elections can reshape the region’s political spectrum?
The elections taking place in Latin America this year are crucial. New leaders will shape the dialogue with Washington, the hemisphere, and the world. They will reflect the sentiments of their populations, revealing how much these elections are influenced by the Trump era of populism and nationalism and whether the symptoms are contagious. Will the hemisphere have a trajectory toward more democratic, open, accountable societies that prosper amid honest and open markets? Or will they turn toward to the kind of chaos and politics of resentment that we see in some countries now and have experienced through so much of our history? We do not know how this will play out, but Latin America has never traveled a straight line to prosperity or progress, and we should not expect one now.
One of the victories of the Obama Administration was the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. How do you think the current Administration will face the recent change in the Cuban government? Do you think the election of Miguel Díaz-Canel will bring change to the country and to its relationship with the US or will Havana have a continuity in policies?
It’s hard to say what will happen with US/Cuba relations. However, there are no indications at this time that the Trump administration is interested in warmer relations with Havana. Quite the contrary, the Trump administration plays to its base, hardline conservatives, including those who are as opposed to rapprochement with Cuba as ever. It is unlikely that the new government in Cuba, unless it undertakes massive and visible political reforms, will find a more receptive crowd in Washington or an environment in which to operate anytime soon.
Let’s talk a little about political discourse. With the new digital platforms we have available, how do you think political discourse has evolved in the past decade? In what way do you predict it will evolve?
Our political discourse has gotten so much worse. It is coarser and nastier, more personal and vindictive. Political discourse emanating from the White House is unprecedented. Never has there been such a constant stream of accusation, demonization, and institution-bashing. This undermines confidence in institutions and in government. I fear it undermines confidence in democracy itself. We are accustomed to American presidents calling on citizens to embrace the better angels of their nature, to recognize that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself, to believe that they inhabit a shining city on a hill. The current occupant of the White House takes a much more combative and coarse approach to political discourse and public engagement. He accuses, misrepresents, and pays no heed to the precision of words. Like so many people around the world, he has a built-in amplifier through his social media platforms. He has learned that rage and resentment sell better than compromise and modesty. We are experiencing a new low in political discourse in the United States. I am not without hope, however. Our politics and our culture evolve and tend to move in cycles. It is quite possible that a leader will emerge from the current moment in history who appeals to Americans’ sense of unity and community, to those better angels of our nature. That is my expression of optimism.
In the field of professional political communication, the United States is one of the countries where this profession is more recognised. What do you think are the key elements to have good quality professionals working in political communicators? Which should be the skills they need?
Professionals in political communication must understand the basic tenants of rhetoric and persuasion and framing. They must know how to message and how to determine whether their message is working with their intended audience. They should, for all the communication warfare going on just now, have a firm sense of ethics and a commitment to the truth. Political communicators must understand that compelling messaging is getting more difficult because of the competition, social media, and the politics I’ve discussed. They must understand the challenges presented by the public’s lack of confidence in political leaders and public institutions. My formula: Believability and credibility, a coherent message, creativity of thought and expression, empathy and the ability to articulate a message well and repeatedly will be the cornerstones of effective political communication in a more contentious future.
Could you explain to our readers why they should join us in Bilbao this June and what can they expect from your visit?
This is a pivotal moment in history. Political leaders and communicators along with journalists and citizens are challenged around the globe to redefine their relationship to one another and to the truth. Unprecedented global prosperity has brought unprecedented challenge. Understanding how we communicate, what works and where the challenges are, and what is at stake make this a fascinating, if urgent, moment in our history. We will hear some of the most important thinkers in Bilbao share their research and their experience in this dynamic new world. I look forward to my visit very much.