Former CNN White House correspondent Frank Sesno discusses his new book, which covers the role of the media in public discourse.
The best, most informative interview begins with thoughtful, insightful questions. That’s the lesson learned from former CNN White House correspondent Frank Sesno, who spent decades interviewing world leaders. Sesno, now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, shared with [email protected] what he’s learned in his new book, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change. He spoke about why it’s important to learn how to ask the right questions on the [email protected] show, part of Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about what’s been going on at the White House with all the back-and-forth with the media.
Frank Sesno: It turns out my book on asking questions and listening for answers is more timely than I had imagined. We will talk about that and the way we can all use these questions in our lives.
But I’m going to be asking some this evening. I’ve got coming to George Washington University a panel of White House correspondents and former Whites House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to talk about the role of the media and this new president — but more to the point, Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary…. Certainly with this immigration ban, a great deal of the confusion and anger probably can be tied to the way it was rolled out, the way it was communicated.
[email protected]: What you’re talking about in this book does play into that exact point. We’ve discussed that a lot of what is going on right now seems rushed. One of the things you bring up in your book is that questions not only have to be timely, but they have to be thought through. You have to think about what you’re going to ask and what you’re trying to get from that question.
Sesno: Exactly. They have to happen on a lot of different levels. This always applies to the White House. It applies in your house. It applies in the office. That’s why I created these sort of categories of questions to help us organize our thoughts and give us tools. One, what’s the problem? How do you diagnose a problem? There’s a whole series and set of questions around that. Two, if you’re setting a strategic course, what are the risks? What are the down sides? What are the alternatives? Do you have people’s support? Three, empathy. Empathic questions. Are you really connecting with people out there to understand how they’re feeling and what you’re hearing?
To come back to the White House for a minute, it’s fair to ask, did they properly ask and answer the questions around the nature of the problem, around this immigration ban? The strategic questions that I talk about in the book I build around (former U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Colin Powell. Each chapter is built around a character. Colin Powell went to George Herbert Walker Bush before the first Gulf War with eight questions. He said, “If you can answer yes to these eight questions, then we’ve done our work and I think that there will be support and we should go for the ground war to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.” Those questions included, have we considered all alternatives? Do we know what success looks like?
“Confrontational questions are very important because they hold people to account — whether the White House or a business.”
[email protected]: I think White House press secretary is one of the more amazing jobs that is probably in this country right now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but press secretaries don’t exactly have a long life in terms of staying with this job because of the pressure.
Sesno: It lasts a few years in most cases. But these are grueling, grinder jobs. They’re 24/7 jobs. I don’t know how open or how experienced Sean Spicer is going to be or how he is to reflect on this, but they are caught in sort of a three-way vise. They serve three masters who have sometimes very different pressures that they bring to bear. One, of course, is the president. They work for the president. Two, the press. They don’t work for the press but they work with the press and they have to have a relationship there. And if they’re doing a job, they’re a two-way conduit. So, they not only want to send information out from the White House, but they want to take what they hear from the press back into the White House. It’s sort of a form of intelligence because you have a sense as to what the pressures are.
The third pressure point — this is the one that really matters the most and is talked about the least — is the public. Ultimately, the press secretary, like the press, should serve the public. That’s why the information that’s coming out of there from anybody needs to be accurate, fair and credible.
[email protected]: One of the areas that you bring up in your book is confrontational questions. You bring up CNN’s Anderson Cooper as one of your examples.
Sesno: Confrontational questions are very important because they hold people to account. Whether that’s the White House or with a business or with a boss or a subordinate, they really do matter. I spent a lot of time with Anderson for the book on this, and he said, “I actually hate confrontational questions. But I’ve discovered that these may be among the most important.” This is the whole notion of holding power to account.
The problem with confrontational and accountability questions is they are often asked for the record. You’re seldom going to have the Perry Mason moment where someone drops to their knees and says, “You’re right. I’m guilty as charged.” They’ll respond with defensiveness. They’ll respond with resistance. They’ll duck the question and dodge the answer. So, they need to be asked for the record.
The danger that we have, especially with this White House and this press corps, is if all we get is confrontational questions, we’re not going to get informative answers. That’s where the public could lose. We have to be very careful on both sides of the press and the White House equation as to how we calibrate that confrontational stance, which goes with the relationship. There is and should be an adversarial relationship between press and power. But it has to be moderated so that we also get answers and information.
[email protected]: There has to be a level of respect there. If you don’t have the level of respect, then the information becomes less and less going forward.
Sesno: I refer to it as respectful adversaries. They need to be respectful adversaries. The danger, and it’s a real danger, is if they become enemies. That’s what