EDITOR'S NOTE: John Sawatsky, ESPN's senior director of talent development, has tutored reporters, anchors and producers around the world. Since 1991, he has devoted all his time to teaching interviewing to professional journalists. ESPN asked him to assess the prospects for the upcoming "60 Minutes" interview of Roger Clemens.
Roger Clemens has no choice. Sooner or later, he must submit to questioning; all embattled public figures eventually come into the open and face scrutiny. Bill Clinton realized it quickly in 1992 when confronted by allegations of an illicit relationship with Gennifer Flowers. Gary Hart needed more time to realize the same thing in an earlier campaign concerning similar allegations. Gary Condit reluctantly followed that path in 2001.
Now, a Clemens interview is coming, Sunday night on "60 Minutes." It is not only his best public relations move, but his only one; and Clemens was clever enough to tap somebody who combines a tough reputation with soft results. Enter Mike Wallace, who happens to be a friend and has shared space with Clemens in George Steinbrenner's suite at Yankee Stadium.
Wallace, despite his notoriety for confronting offenders, has a long history of letting big names off the hook. Here are some select examples:
• At the height of the Watergate scandal, Wallace let Nixon aide John Ehrlichman slip away without a surface scratch. Ehrlichman's eyes sparkled with delight as he sidestepped Wallace's thrusts and triumphantly countered with his own. Ehrlichman dodged Wallace, but not the law. He later went to prison for conspiracy and obstruction of justice, among other things.
• Wallace's attempt to get even a smidgen of accountability from Chinese head honcho, Jiang Zemin, over the crackdown in Tiananmen Square fizzled lamely. The Chinese leader clearly enjoyed the dance and never felt threatened.
• Wallace's inept outrage at how Russian businessman Grigori Loutchansky became an instant billionaire after the fall of the Soviet Union was so laughable that it properly belonged on "Saturday Night Live," not "60 Minutes."
• Last year's assault on Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had the effect of turning a crazed leader pursuing a mad nuclear policy into something resembling a rational human being. Of course, Wallace's probing made not the slightest dent.
When it comes to interviewing, Wallace's instincts are invariably wrong. At critical moments, he habitually zags when he should zig.
Yeah, you might say, but Wallace produces fireworks, doesn't he? Yes, indeed! In the end, theatrics -- not substance -- give Wallace his tough-guy image. His interviewing shortcomings are inevitably papered over by delivery. Wallace is a great performer and puts on a good show. He could read the telephone book aloud on camera and bring it to life, and that takes some talent. Without question, Wallace has talent.
Bluster and the appearance of confrontation provide fireworks on the television screen, but not accountability. Quite the opposite. There's a difference between sounding tough and being tough. Wallace's adversaries catch onto his act quickly, and merely respond with stronger and more vehement denials, and use him to get their points across.
So it is not surprising that Clemens handpicked Wallace to interview him in the wake of the revelations in the Mitchell report. The allegations that Clemens received injections of illicit performance-enhancing substances put him in a tough spot. At first, he refused all questions, which is telling. The first instinct of the innocent is to talk. They want to clear the air. The first instinct of the guilty is to run to a lawyer, which Clemens chose to do. So the optics are not good.
The "encounter" will air Sunday following the Titans-Chargers AFC wild-card matchup, but the interview has already been taped and tidbits have been revealed. The bits that have been let out bolster my fears that Wallace's questions will speak loudly and carry no stick. They are likely to be in the style of:
• Roger, have you ever taken steroids?
• Have you ever taken human growth hormones?
• Is Brian McNamee lying when he says he injected you with steroids?
• Are you sure you are telling the truth?
These questions are confrontational and sound tough, but are easy to knock down. Being yes-no, they merely ask for a confirmation or denial. Two options are involved: One is very, very bad for Clemens and the other is very, very good. Guess which one Clemens will choose. How tough is it to choose good over bad? Denying evil is a no-brainer, so the equation needs to be changed.
Choosing between black and white is easy, but choosing between two shades of gray changes the whole interview dynamic and rules out an automatic knee-jerk response. The act of choosing can be revealing; it gives the observer a chance to glean information about the subject and their inner character. Clemens must be forced into a tougher set of choices, which require open-ended questions, such as:
• How widespread has the use of steroids been in Major League Baseball in the past few decades?
• How much of a competitive advantage do players get from the use of steroids and HGH?
• How would you describe what happened with home run totals in the '90s?
• What caused baseball to suddenly experience such a spike?
• How much of the spike in home runs was due to steroids?
• What did you observe at the time from being inside the game?
• Why didn't you speak out at the time?
• Why would Brian McNamee lie about you when telling the truth about Andy Pettitte?
These are solid questions that move Clemens into a different space. However, good questions alone do not necessarily pull the truth out of anyone. Successful interviews get people to go further than they planned to go, and rarely come from a planned list of questions, even when the questions are good ones. Interviewing does not work that way. It is a dynamic process involving two basic stages. Stage 1 is planned; Stage 2 exploits the moment that Stage 1 produces, whenever and however it occurs.
If Wallace has really put Clemens to the test, he did so using a strategy that ties his questions together so the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Rather than "confronting" Clemens, Wallace will have established some basic points of agreement. Accountability inevitably comes out of agreement, not fireworks. It's the only practical way to get Clemens to open up and come clean.
Agreement does not mean reading out research or prefacing questions with statements of fact. It is using questions strategically so that the other party takes ownership of the facts. "Establish" means that Clemens states the facts himself, so he can't just deny the facts or blow them off. That way, he must stand up and confront the issues. Once this stage is reached, he is truly accountable.
Here's one way to go about it: Establish agreement by having Clemens state some basic realities, doing it point by point, making sure not to move on too quickly.
Establish the following:
• That the taking of illicit substances by players was prevalent in the 1990s. That's easy.
• That these illicit substances give ball players a competitive advantage. He can't realistically deny that nor will he want to.
• That these substances would give him a competitive advantage as well. Watch his reaction and notice the conflicts. On one hand, he looks bad admitting it. On the other hand, he looks bad denying it, since pooh-poohing it diminishes his credibility. Which way does he move? His instincts will push him in both directions. Watching him bridge that conflict would make the interview worthwhile on that score alone. Force him to choose and pounce on the tactical opportunity.
• That the prospect of getting an advantage stirs his competitive juices. Watch him squirm. He can't deny it, but neither will he want to confirm it.
At some point Clemens needs to be confronted over his 2005 statement to the Houston Chronicle in which he said: "I'm going to find anything I can that'll make me stronger and allow me to keep up with the 20-year-olds, but I'm going to depend on physicians to tell me what's OK." It's an example of strategically waiting for the right moment.
How does he explain it? Ask him exactly that question. There isn't a yes-no option for choosing good over evil. His response will reveal tons. He will seek to preserve his credibility, and that means staying in the middle of the road, exactly where all the accidents happen. One side of the road means fessing up, which he will resist. The other side means total denial, which is not believable and makes him look a phony. So he won't like that option, either. He can neither refute nor embrace the question. The choice he faces is tough, although no histrionics are involved. Sit back and watch how he deals with it and be ready with follow-ups.
Suddenly, tactical opportunities spring up all over the place. The interviewee is now under the gun and the interviewer has all the power. Rather than having a PR opportunity to proclaim his innocence and take shots at Brian McNamee and the Mitchell report, Clemens would find himself on the hot seat.
It would be great to see Clemens subjected to real scrutiny on Sunday night, but I'm not getting my hopes up. Wallace is in charge of the show, and that probably means that cheap theatrics will be the order of the day and accountability will have to take a back seat. He has a history putting on a great show and then letting his target off the hook. It's a pity.
John Sawatsky, who came to ESPN as senior director of talent development in July 2004, is a longtime political and investigative journalist from Canada who has taught journalism and investigated the process of interviewing over the last several decades. His client list has included newspapers, television and radio outlets around the world. It does not include Mike Wallace.