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If at first they don’t answer, ask 24 more times


Bob Woodward, the investigative journalist who reported on the Watergate scandal, and Robert Costa of the Washington Post provided a great example of the important role reporters play during political campaigns at a Donald Trump interview back in April 2016, when the candidate had not still severed his ties to that newspaper. After Trump avoided answering a question about how he made his decision to run for president, the reporters proceeded to repeat the same question 24 more times in different ways. In the following table, we split the interview transcript so that you can follow the reporters’ track to see how they did it. We also provide a one-word description of the technique the candidate used to answer: either “flagging” (raising a message important to him) or “bridging” (changing to a more favorable subject):


Bob Woodward and Robert Costa Donald Trump
And the real first question is, where do you start the movie of your decision to run for president? Because that is a big deal. A lot of internal/external stuff, and we’d love to hear your monologue on how you did it. Where do you start the movie? I think it’s actually — and very interesting question — but I think the start was standing on top of the escalator at Trump Tower on June 16, which is the day — Bob, you were there, and you know what I mean, because there has . . .  I mean, it looked like the Academy Awards. I talk about it. There were so many cameras. So many — it was packed. The atrium of Trump Tower, which is a very big place, was packed. It literally looked like the Academy Awards. And . . .
But we want to go before that moment. Before that? Okay, because that was really . . . [FLAGGING]
Because, in other words, there’s an internal Donald with Donald. [BRIDGING]
So is there a linchpin moment, Mr. Trump, where it went from maybe to yes, I’m going to do this? And when was that? [BRIDGING]
And that guy was trying to draft you. [BRIDGING]
And that was the real possibility? Or the first . . . [BRIDGING]
So when did it go to yes? [BRIDGING]
Because that’s — having made, you know, we all make minor decisions in our lives. [BRIDGING]
This is the big one. [BRIDGING]
When did it become yes? [BRIDGING]
You made a lot of money. [BRIDGING]
Who are you saying that to? Your wife? [BRIDGING]
To your family? [BRIDGING]
To yourself. [BRIDGING]
This is interior dialogue. [BRIDGING]
Can you isolate a moment when it kicked to yes? [BRIDGING]
Because that’s what Bob and I are looking for. [FLAGGING]
What made you angriest? [FLAGGING]
Did anyone recommend no? Did your wife, or did your son? [FLAGGING]
Did anyone say, “Dad, Donald, don’t do it?” [FLAGGING]
What’d she say? [FLAGGING]
And what’d you say? [FLAGGING]
Well, that’s the important moment, when you say, I have to do it. [FLAGGING]
That’s the product of the endless internal dialogue. [FLAGGING]
Did she give you the green light? Oh, absolutely. [CONTINUE FLAGGING]


During the current campaign, US presidential candidate Donald Trump has leveled frequent attacks on media, including Univision, CNN, the New York Times and many others, calling them “dishonest”. His campaign has denied credentials for campaign events to the Washington Post and other news outlets. The candidate has a Twitter following of over ten million and publishes his thoughts there several times every day, so nobody can say that it is hard to hear from him. Twitter, though, does not replace the role of reporters during a presidential campaign: to scrutinize the candidates thoroughly, so that voters can then make informed decisions on election day. Voters should expect that all candidates are interviewed with such consistency during an important vote like the current US election. The ability to answer dogged questions from media when a candidate does not yet hold office is a great indicator of how he or she will answer to the public once in power.

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