Through a series of examples and business cases, Jerry Weissman shows you how to handle tough questions with integrity—in any situation.
Case Studies: Timothy Leary • Benjamin Franklin • Socrates • Mike Wallace, CBS • Richard Scrushy, HealthSouth • Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine • John Boehner • Quentin Tarantino • Helene Poirier, Cisco • NetRoadshow • David Bellet, Crown Advisors • Leslie Pfrang, Class V Group • Mark Twain
■ Why People Ask Tough Questions ■
During the tumultuous counterculture movement of the 1960s, Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary incited his followers to “turn on, tune in, drop out” and, citing the directive of the epigraph, to question the authority of existing social and political institutions.1 Ben Franklin, as one of the founding fathers of the United States, is said to have urged its citizens, newly independent from British rule, to question authority.2 And the famed Greek philosopher Socrates developed the use of argumentative question-and-answer dialogue to stimulate critical thinking—a framework we now know as the Socratic method.3
What these three vastly different men with vastly different points of view have in common is their advocacy of making provocative challenges to the status quo.
Mike Wallace and his legions of colleagues in journalism and the news media are descendants of that same thinking. But all of them take their challenges to a higher level of intensity. They are trained to operate by the first principle of the press: “if it bleeds, it leads.” Journalists are also keenly aware that conflict is drama, that drama sells ads on television and popcorn in movie theaters, and so journalists invariably unleash “gotcha” questions.
As a baseline, let’s examine one of Mike’s most prosecutorial interrogations: an interview he had with Richard Scrushy, the founder and CEO of HealthSouth, a publicly traded health care company (now known as Encompass Health). Scrushy had been accused by no fewer than five of his former CFOs of fraud. Mike, who was “astonished when [Scrushy] agreed to answer our questions,”4 began the interview by going right for the jugular:
You are supposed to be a crook. You know that. The SEC in effect says you are. Your former financial officers, chief financial officers, say you are—that Richard Scrushy inflated earnings and betrayed his stockholders, betrayed his employees.
Blinking rapidly, Scrushy replied:
There’s no evidence of any of that and—uh—many of the people have said it’s not true.
Glancing down at his notes, Mike read the evidence to him:
Tad McVeigh, CFO, until early this year, 2003, pled guilty, told the judge, “Richard Scrushy was aware that the financial statement contained numbers that were incorrect.”
His blinking now accompanied by facial tics, Scrushy protested:
This is—again—it’s not true. I haven’t—I haven’t…
With a grand wave of his arms and a sardonic smile, Mike said:
All these guys are liars, and you are a knight in shining armor.
Mike, there’s 50,000 people—there are five—you have five people that have made these claims out of 50,000 people. Let me make a comment…
Mike narrowed his eyes and interrupted:
But you’re in charge. Come on. You are…
Scrushy frowned and leaned forward:
That doesn’t mean—okay—No, I did not. I did not! No. This—you’re not right!
Referencing his notes again, Mike provided more evidence:
McVeigh told the judge you tried to justify it by saying, quote, “All companies play games with accounting.”
Shaking his head, Scrushy replied:
I never said that to him, and he knows that.
Incredulous, Mike asked:
Why would these chief financial officers—what you’re saying is they committed the fraud? For what reason?
Scrushy raised his eyebrows and answered:
I didn’t—I certainly didn’t commit fraud. People know me they know I wouldn’t instruct somebody to do that.
Mike drove his point home:
What would be the motive of your CFOs to commit a fraud?
Blinking still, Scrushy responded:
I really don’t want to get into the detail, but every one of them has a motive.5
Each of the flaming missiles that Mike fired at Scrushy was targeted at the same issue—his alleged fraud—and, as each of them landed, Scrushy twitched defensively in response.
Karen Tumulty matches Mike Wallace missile for missile. Now a political columnist for The Washington Post, Tumulty spent 16 years as the congressional correspondent for Time magazine. During her tenure, she badgered the veteran Representative and Speaker of the House John Boehner so often that he complained about her in his memoir:
Some reporters will try to joke around and act friendly at first to try and disarm you before they throw you the real questions. Not [Tumulty]… She zeroed in on me like a hawk spotting a limping jackrabbit from a mile away.6
Most reporters aspire to emulate Mike Wallace and Karen Tumulty, but many often fall far short of the mark.
One who did was Krishnan Guru-Murthy, a journalist at Britain’s Channel 4. Trying his best to emulate Mike Wallace, he asked Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino about his film Django Unchained:
Why are you so sure there’s no link between enjoying movie violence and enjoying real violence?
Do not ask me a question like that. I’m not biting. I refuse your question.
Tarantino told him why:
Because I’m here to sell my movie. This is a commercial for the movie, make no mistake.
Guru-Murthy challenged him:
Oh, so you don’t want to talk about anything serious.
Tarantino stood his ground:
I don’t want to talk about what you want to talk about. I don’t want to talk about the implications of violence. The reason I don’t want to talk about it is because I’ve said everything I have to say about it.
Guru-Murthy tried again:
No, but you haven’t fleshed it out.
Tarantino would not budge:
It’s not my job to flesh it out.
Trying to be gracious, Guru-Murthy smiled wanly and said:
No, it’s my job to try and ask you to.
Snickering, Tarantino barked:
And I’m shutting your butt down!
Undeterred, Guru-Murthy tried another angle:
But you have a responsibility as a filmmaker surely to explain a little bit about what you’re doing.
Tarantino stood firm:
I have explained this many times in the last twenty years. I just refuse to repeat myself over and over again because you want me to. For you and your show and your ratings!
Darting his eyes away, Guru-Murthy laughed nervously:
Oh—well, no—it’s not about—ah—ratings.
Leaning forward, Tarantino administered the knockout punch:
No, no, it is! It’s about what you want me to say for you, for your show, this show right here, right now!7
Given his daily practice of barking orders at actors, stagehands, and studio technicians on movie sets, Quentin Tarantino was not about to succumb to any reporter’s tough questions. But few people, businesspeople in particular, come equipped with Tarantino’s bravura.