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Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Column 153) — Conway’s Lessons on Driving Discourse

Oblique Strategy #47 — How not to have a conversation?

The last column explored the way Chuck Todd handled Kellyanne Conway’s resort to the notion of “alternative facts” during a broadcast of Meet the Press.

He equated “alternative facts” to “falsehoods” and earned the praise of many media commentators — commentators who were looking for a way to report statements as false statements made by high-ranking government officials.

As I studied the transcript, I was not impressed with Todd’s intervention, but I was amazed by Conway’s remarkable performance.

The previous column presented an annotated version of the transcript of the Todd-Conway Meet the Press interview. The full version is 15 pages and 3,000 words long, and it consists of 64 numbered exchanges.

The presidential Inauguration was Friday, Jan. 20. Sean Spicer’s first press conference was scheduled for Monday, Jan. 23.

But he called for a meeting of the White House press corps on Saturday, Jan. 21, to berate reporters for their treatment of President Trump and reiterate the claim that the Inauguration crowd was larger than the one assembled in 2009 for the first Obama Inauguration.

The claim was made after aerial photos showing the larger crowd in 2009 had been widely published.

The White House press secretary speaks for the president and the entire Executive Branch of government. He has a staff of about 30 people whose task is to know what the president’s men and women are doing.

The press secretary passes that information on to the White House press corps and looks for information when necessary to answer a reporter’s question.

Anyone who has lived through Vietnam, Watergate, the Clinton impeachment and the Iraq War may believe that information coming from the White House is dubious at best.

But the White House in general, and the president in particular, have access to more information on more subjects than any other agency or individual in the world. The potential quality of the information is so high it can’t be ignored.

The Spicer confrontation of the press took place less than 24 hours before, so it was still hot news when the Todd-Conway interview took place.

The president could have modified his claim of the “biggest inauguration ever” to “it looked like the biggest ever to me,” but he didn’t. Spicer reiterated a demonstrably false claim.

Todd wanted to know why Spicer would compromise his credibility as press secretary before his first scheduled conference took place.

It’s a legitimate concern, but it would inevitably produce contentious and loaded questions for any representative of the new administration to answer. Conway either volunteered or was ordered into the lion’s den.

The way she survived is worth study because it shows various techniques that can be used to avoid answering one specific question for a long time.

Here, I’m not interested in the politics or personalities of the situation. Instead, I think it could be useful to study this demonstration to not only learn how to avoid answering, but also the various techniques used to do so.

The Opening Third of the Interview

Todd begins with an awkward form of the question: “[W]hy send out the press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size?”

Conway is ready with a 307-word speech that begins with a DISTRACTING statement about how the president “signed executive orders to stop Obamacare…” She then continues to talk about election results.

Next, she uses a transitional paragraph to DISTORT the subject matter and DEGRADE the significance of the subject she’s created.

She was asked why the press secretary would make a provably false claim about crowd size. She replies by saying that crowd size isn’t important: “I don't think ultimately presidents are judged by crowd sizes at their inauguration.”

Todd acknowledges Conway’s case for why the crowd size doesn’t matter, and then asks why the president’s press secretary made a claim about it that he must have known to be false?

Conway IGNORES the question and DEFLECTS the conversation by ATTACKING Todd because someone in the press corps falsely reported that the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Her words:

“And we allowed the press in. And what happens almost immediately? A falsehood is told about removing the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office. No, that's just flat out false.”

She says, in effect, that we accommodated people like you, Chuck, and look what happened.

Todd is on Exchange #14 without an answer to his question. He says, “ ... you did not answer the question.”

Conway DENIES, “I did answer.”

Todd says, “No, you did not.”

Conway continues with “your question” showing she was interrupted.

Todd repeats, “You did not,” and Conway repeats, “Yes, I did.”

In Exchange #17 a frustrated Todd takes another run. He tells Conway:

“Answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood?

"Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office ...”

Conway IGNORES the question and REDIRECTS the conversation by CHALLENGING the reason for the question.

She replies to the claim made by Todd’s final sentence and says, “No, it doesn’t [undermine the credibility] of the White House Press Office.”

This throws Todd off balance because he doesn’t want an answer to that part of the question; he assumes it’s irrefutable.

Conway sees an opening and delivers a personal slam questioning whether the interview is being conducted in good faith. She attempts to UNDERMINE [Todd’s] LEGITIMACY, but she may have gone too far:

“Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What — You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains... ”

It takes Todd four starts before he can get at the “alternative facts claim. In Exchange #21 he says, “... Look, alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods.”

The Middle Third: When the going gets tough…

Conway dodged the opening thrust of the interview by reciting pitches from the campaign that had nothing to do with the question. Then she insisted she had answered the question.

Near the end of the first third of the interview, she accuses Todd of being overly dramatic, which is a way to undermine the legitimacy of the interview.

But she goes too far with the use of the term “alternative fact,” which Todd is able — rightly or wrongly — to associate with falsehood.

Conway knows she’s headed for trouble and holds Todd off by IGNORING and DIVERTING the subject of the conversation with a 150-word speech that starts:

“Chuck, do you think it's a fact or not that millions of people have lost their plans or health insurance and their doctors under President Obama?”

She’s demanding that Todd defend Obamacare. It’s absurd, but she makes it appear to be on-topic by concluding, “These are the facts that I want the press corps to cover... ”

On Exchange #27 Todd turns the question into an accusation: “You sent the press secretary out there to utter a falsehood on the smallest, pettiest thing.”

She DENIES by claiming a FAILURE OF PROOF: “I don't think that anybody can prove the... ”

She follows up with a CLAIM OF [her own] EXPERTISE. She’s a pollster so she knows that numbers like these (crowd size) can’t be proven.

If you listen carefully, you can hear a slight giggle in the background. It’s probable it’s a chuckle from Todd over his inability to get an answer to his question after so many attempts.

Conway uses a chuckle from Chuck to accomplish what would be a REVERSE in wrestling and characterizes Todd and his network as bullies.

“... And I think it's actually symbolic of the way we're treated by the press. The way that you just laughed at me is actually symbolic of the way — very representative of the way we're treated by the press.

"Let me tell you something else. I'm really glad that NBC News and Chuck Todd all of a sudden are so thrilled to cover crowd control because we were mocked daily for talking about the significance of our historic rallies.”

She has DIVERTED the conversation. The next five exchanges are about crowd sizes throughout the campaign. She’s pulled Todd so far off topic that she’s able to deliver four, pre-packaged campaign speeches. In the next fifteen exchanges Todd speaks 102 words and gets out one complete sentence. Conway speaks 1003 words and delivers four short, pre-packaged campaign speeches on unrelated topics.

In Exchange #44 Todd tries again

“I want to go back to a question that you continue to deflect. Why was it necessary to send out the press secretary on his first day in office to utter a provable falsehood that now calls into question everything the press secretary say — will say from... ”

Again, Conway REDIRECTS the conversation by addressing the reason for the question instead of the question itself. All she has to say is, “No, it doesn’t.”

Todd can’t complete a sentence in two exchanges. Conway gathers her strength, pulls another REVERSE and ATTACKS:

“… You want them to hear that. You want them to hear that I'm not answering your questions, which I'm doing. You want them to hear that they can't trust our press secretary. I think that it is a very — [dangerous statement to make.]”

Todd has taken 44 shots in an attempt to find out why Spicer made a false claim about a petty issue on his first day on the job. Conway has now accused Todd of undermining the integrity of the press secretary.

The Final Third

The first part of the interview ended with the equation: Alternative facts equal falsehoods.

The middle concluded with Todd standing accused of dangerously undermining the credibility of the press secretary by insisting on an answer to the question Conway won’t answer.

Todd doesn’t take the bait. In Exchange #47 he asks: “What was the motive to have this ridiculous litigation of crowd size?”

Conway sees an opening with the word “ridiculous.” She exploits it immediately and uses it as a theme to which she returns during the rest of the interview. She starts with another ATTACK on Todd’s professional competency.

In Exchange #49 she tells him that he’s not doing his job:

“ ...opinion, Chuck. Respectfully, your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president. That's not your job. You're supposed to be a news person. You're not an opinion columnist.”

In Exchange #50 Todd pleads, “Can you please answer the question? Why did he do this? You have not answered it.”

She says, “I’ll answer.”

Todd says, “It’s only one question.”

“I'll answer it this way. Think about what you just said to your viewers. That's why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative... ”

In Exchange #53 Todd states the suspicion behind the question he’s been asking again and again. “It's a political tactic to come up with alternative facts and try to set up the press as your enemy?”

Conway’s ready for the accusation. She DENIES, IGNORES and DIVERTS with a 178-word speech that begins,

“No, I didn't say that at all. And that's not why I'm here in this building.

"I'm here because of all the provable, quantifiable facts, because of the devastation and destruction in our schools with our health care, in our economy, with our small business owners... ”

Todd says, “All I’m looking for... ” Conway INTERRUPTS and RIDICULES by adding “approval rating.”

With the finish line in sight, Conway takes up Exchange #55 by QUESTIONING THE QUESTION: “Tell me why you just referred to us as ridiculous.”

She doesn’t give Todd a chance to answer and once again resorts to an unrelated grievance, “ ...we were lied about with the MLK bust.”

Todd complains, “Anything about MLK ... look, you’re deflecting in order to... ”

She interrupts and PERSISTS, “NBC covered that false report.”

Todd continues with his half of the conversation,“ ...avoid to answer [sic] the question.”

Conway has another 155 words about the MLK bust in the Oval Office.

In Exchange #62 Todd admits defeat. He doesn’t know if he’s answering or asking questions, but he isn’t able to do either. “I'm sitting here trying to answer basic questions and you're trying to attack me with... ”

Conway CONTRADICTS him by saying, “I’m not attacking you.”

In the penultimate Exchange #63, she ATTACKS by returning to the theme she exploited at the beginning of the last third of the interview: “You attacked us as ridiculous.”

In Exchange #64 Todd says, “Look, I’m going to have to leave it there... ”

She was probably exhausted, but not injured. Chuck Todd, no doubt, needed a rest.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #48 — What it means “to file for divorce.”

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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