To scam an investigative reporter: The Trump and Woodward interview

It’s clear that Woodward, of course a superb investigative reporter, prepared well for the Trump interviews. He was ready.

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“Trump’s Agreeing to Talk to Woodward Shows Downside of Never Having Read a Book in Entire Life,” was the headline of a satirical piece this week by Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker.

Borowitz declared: “While millions of Americans were astonished that Trump would voluntarily speak at great length to an author famous for his takedowns of Presidents, experts believe that a total obliviousness to books and what is inside them might have played a pivotal role.” 

The “The Borowitz Report” continued with a fictional expert, “David Logsdon, a University of Minnesota professor who studies the psychology of people who have never read a book in their lives” who “said that such people might be overconfident about how they would be portrayed if a book were ever written about them.”

“’If you’ve never read a book in your life, you might be under the impression that all books are flattering,’ he said. ‘You would have no idea that a book could portray you as a human dumpster fire.”

Indeed, Trump’s tradition of never reading anything and thus being oblivious to who investigative journalist Woodward is might indeed have been a factor. That’s beyond a joke.

Also, his extreme narcissism likely was a factor.

But I think the prime reason why Trump went for an interview by Woodward—and 18 times at that!—is because as a con man he figured he could con even a great investigative reporter.  

Scam artist Trump figured he could even snow Woodward. 

For 42 years I’ve taught a course in Investigative Reporting at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, besides being an active investigative journalist, and I teach a process for journalistic probes developed by Paul Williams. 

The late Williams was also a professor of journalism, at Ohio State University, and also a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, and his process—called the “Paul Williams Way” in the investigative reporting craft—contains what Williams termed “Key Interviews.”

Preceding that, as Williams laid out in his landmark 1978 book, Investigative Reporting and Editing, are “Conception,” “Feasibility study,” “Go/no-go decision,” “Planning and base-building,” “Original research,” “Reevaluation,” “Go/no-go decision”—and then “Key Interviews.”

He wrote in his investigative reporting handbook: “Key interviews are to be saved for the last. There may be only one, or there may be as many as half a dozen. However many, the reporter sets them up only after he is satisfied that he has isolated the central figures behind his central thesis.” 

Williams wrote “that there are three important points to remember about it: you should prepare for it carefully; you should keep control of it, and you should use it to gain new information.”

“Reread all of the files. Bring the chronology up to date,” he went on. “Check and re-check crucial documents. Study all of this material until you can talk about any aspect of it without fumbling. Write down the questions. Study them in a logical order, going from the most general and least difficult ones at the start to the toughest and most specific ones at the end.”

“In most cases,” Williams noted, “the interview becomes an intense contest of wills and wits.”

He added: “Too many people think of the key interview only as the formality of letting the target person comment on or give excuses for the illegal or immoral activities that you have documented.” 

“Don’t shirk the key interview,” wrote Williams. “The target person may not want to see you, but don’t use this as an excuse to avoid the interview. If he won’t answer the phone, go to his house.”

Some of my students, after I explain this part of the “Paul Williams Way,” will always ask why someone would subject themselves to a “key interview” by an investigative reporter.

I respond that in my experience you are often investigating a person who lied, cheated, mislead, deluded, fibbed—and conned—through their lives. 

And they presume they can con you, too. So, they agree to an interview.

By his questions, it’s clear that Woodward, of course a superb investigative reporter, prepared well for the Trump interviews. He was ready.

The satirical piece by Borowitz concluded: “As for Trump,” expert “Logsdon said that the President would ‘definitely benefit’ from reading a book someday, but added, ‘It’s a little too late for that now.”

It’s also too late for con man Trump to believe an investigative reporter wouldn’t accept his BS. He has gone from scam after scam through his life. Indeed, in politics now he has successfully fooled a portion of the U.S. public. Why not an investigative reporter, too?

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