Watching Newhart’s character try to gut his way through the interview is as hilarious as it is uncomfortable. His mistakes are many – one hopes he hires a good media trainer next time – but the fact that he sticks it out is a point in his favor.
I wouldn’t say there’s never a good reason to cut out during an agreed-upon interview, but it should be an exceedingly rare step. Walking away means abandoning the chance to speak for yourself while handing that opportunity to others.
Two real-life examples happened in recent days, and on both sides of the camera.
The first example took place on the UK’s Sky News, when the British Broadcasting Corp.’s acting director-general, Tim Davies, walked away from a live interview after fielding questions about former BBC head George Entwistle. Entwistle exited after less than two months on the job, but with a hefty payout, as part of an exec sweep at the Beeb following allegations of child sexual abuse by one of its news hosts. Davies seemed surprised by the grilling – he shouldn’t have been – and bailed with the excuse, “I’ve got a lot to do.”
The second instance occurred during an interview on Fox News. While discussing the September consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, author and military expert Thomas Ricks surprised anchor Jon Scott by criticizing Fox News’ coverage of the attack and accusing the network of “operating as a wing of the Republican Party.” Scott immediately ended the interview. Ricks claimed he’d warned Fox staffers what he would say; even if he didn’t, his track record of prickly interviews should have been fair warning.
In the wake of these TV cliffhangers, the dialogue has fallen to other media and media pundits – often without involving the actual players. Davies lost his opportunity to express empathy for the victims and explain how the BBC was cleaning house. Scott received a wide-open invitation to address common assumptions about Fox News, and his response was to go to commercial.
These folks now face a decidedly uphill battle to regain credibility and a meaningful in the discussion. Far better if they’d been professional, prepared and on message – or lacking that, if they’d simply declined to do the interviews in the first place.
That’s a valuable lesson in media relations.