Spinning Wheels: The Television Interview

Posted on Jul 27, 2017 in Blog Entry: Spinning the Law

Attorney at law, legal analyst, high stakes litigator, and former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey discusses the importance of the television interview for law spinners.

Television interviews can be a great forum for getting a message to the public. But they sometimes offer pain as well as gain because, in many ways, the broadcast venue is less forgiving than a judge and jury.

During the Elián [González] case, I appeared in dozens of national news interviews over a four-month period in 2000. As I discovered immediately, each interview required the same intense level of preparation that lawyers require for a closing argument, except that closing arguments rarely occur between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. – that is, when network morning shows were starting their day with Elián. The time of day was manageable – no one on our team was sleeping much. As I soon learned, however, there were other factors that made television interviews and court appearances about as similar as Oz and Kansas.

Superficially, a reporter’s interview consists of questioning lawyers about the client’s case. Just as judges question them in a regular courtroom. And, like good judges, good reporters typically ask thoughtful questions that intellectually challenge the attorney’s position, especially in high-profile cases where reporters can take the time to study the issues.

Judges and juries, though, while holding the actual power of decision, are almost always a more hospitable venue than the networks. In a courtroom, judges and juries actually want lawyers to do their best and are often uncomfortable, even frustrated, over courtroom stumbles. As judges and jurors watch a lawyer walk across the legal tightrope, they want to see him or her safely reach the other side, even if they do not agree with that lawyer’s perspective of the case.

In high-profile cases, on the other hand, television interviews might just as soon see the attorney stumble precariously on the tightrope with arms flailing, perhaps hanging on by a finger or maybe even falling. Legal missteps, like other unexpected twists, are simply more newsworthy.

And the court of law is more forgiving of mistakes than the court of public opinion. When attorneys misspeak during court proceedings, their corrections are routinely accepted. Regarding damage control for televised mistakes, however, there is usually more damage and less control. In contrast to ongoing court proceedings, there is no second chance for correction after the interview is concluded. And while all judges know that smart lawyers are capable of saying dumb things, neither the media nor the public seem sympathetic when ill-advised mouthings come from professional mouthpieces.

Also crucially different is the appetite for conflict. Judges and jurors rarely enjoy contentiousness between opposing attorneys. To the contrary, when judges ask questions, they often look for areas of agreement between lawyers and are usually gratified when opposing lawyers seem to agree on significant issues.

Talk shows, however, do not stage lawyers for a group hug. Conflict is the spice of legal life for television. From the standpoint of many news producers, the more contentious the interview, the better the segment. As a result, rather than judge’s question exploring concurrence between parties, news shows can be a relentless search for conflict where reporters try to accentuate existing disagreement or provoke new disputes. During one of my interview tapings with Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer, she confronted me with the statement by an unnamed member of Elián’s own legal team who said there was no chance of winning our appeal. Although I still stuck to my position that “any alien” included a child, I was caught off guard and was relieved when that exchanges was not used in the actual news story. Whenever inconsistencies are made by a team’s attorneys, the press pounce to hammer about “disparate statements.” Through such experiences in Elián’s case, we learned about the importance of weekly message consistency even if, at times, the message necessarily must evolve over the course of litigation.