When Tough Questions Go Horribly Wrong
Nothing exposes you like asking a tough question.
Like a boxer extending a jab, you reveal yourself in the moment, stepping aggressively to a subject in a way that also makes you vulnerable. Handle the moment badly, and like an off-balance prizefighter, you might be the one hugging the canvas after a knockout blow.
That's a truth that emerged in recent days during two separate incidents at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour — a twice–annual event where people who make television arrange long days of press conferences and cocktail parties where TV critics and reporters can ask questions about programming to come.
The setup is simple: Stars and producers sit on a stage in a huge meeting room and take questions from journalists who sit in the audience and are handed microphones. Usually, the biggest problem here is writers who forget to act like journalists, turned into fawning compliment machines by the aura of stars like Matthew McConaughey or Julia Roberts.
But occasionally, the effort to ask a tough question during a press conference filled with dozens of writers goes badly wrong, exposing the widening gulf between generations of journalists, the changing nature of arts criticism and the difficulty of expressing a complex thought in a 30-second turn at the microphone.
Jonathan Storm, a former TV critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, found himself on the wrong end of that dynamic when he asked MSNBC and Today show anchor Tamron Hall how she balances her time among those two jobs for NBC and hosting a show called Deadline Crime for Discovery channel's Investigation Discovery.
Hall responded with a detailed story about how the show was inspired by her experience seeing her sister murdered; the anchor talked in a way that seemed heartfelt and emotional about guilt over once rejecting her sister for failing to disconnect from an abusive partner.
Storm's response was to seek an answer to the question he actually asked: "That's all very nice," he said. "But can you explain the relationship between your job and NBC and your job at Discovery?"
The air seemed to go out of the room a bit as other critics immediately realized how far south this interaction was going. Hall seemed to struggle with the unexpected response: "Well, let me be clear," she replied. "To say that it's just all very nice, when I don't know if you've had a sister found murdered, but I have. So it is not meant to be nice ... "
The interaction inspired a flurry of tweets from other critics praising Hall and criticizing Storm. The Huffington Post wrote a story titled "Tamron Hall Reveals Details of Sister's Murder, Gets Awful Response from Reporter," while Mediaite's story was headlined "MSNBC's Tamron Hall Opens Up about Sister's Murder at TV Event, Gets Shocking Response."
Storm, who retired from the Inquirer in 2011 after 22 years, still writes as a freelance critic. He acknowledged he could have been more diplomatic in his response to Hall, but said he grew angry at what he felt was a "pre-programmed speech" the anchor had prepared to gain sympathy.
"I had the impression, if somebody had asked her what time is it [she would have given that speech]," said Storm, who reserves a special dislike for TV news anchors who include personal tragedies in their on-screen work.
He also noted that the audience at the press tour is no longer dominated by the old-school newspaper journalists who once filled the majority of Television Critics Association memberships. "It used to be [at TCA], you were in a room primarily filled with cynical reporters," he added. "Now you're in a room with a plurality of sympathetic fans. ... I've learned there is a place for cynicism, but it shouldn't necessarily rule [my thoughts] on the topic I'm covering."
From my seat, it seemed Storm didn't communicate what was really bothering him about what Hall said — in part because it is so difficult to communicate complex, controversial thoughts in this setting.
Tim Molloy, a writer for The Wrap website, found similar difficulties at a different press conference when trying to ask a question about how HBO's sometimes explicit dramedy Girls uses nudity.
He asked star Lena Dunham: "I don't get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I'm walking into a trap where you go, 'Nobody complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones,' but I get why they are doing it. They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason."
Dunham's response was revealing while pushing back a little at the reporter: "It's because it's a realistic expression of what it's like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that's your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out with ... whatever professionals you've hired."
But Dunham's collaborators, executive producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, were more pointed in their responses, with Apatow implying Molloy might feel bad about his own body and Konner admitting she was in a "rage spiral" over "this idea that you would talk to a woman like that and accuse a woman of showing her body too much."
That's not exactly what happened. Molloy was trying to start a conversation about how the show uses nudity. But by singling out Dunham's nudity as particularly perplexing, he also seemed to be implying that because she doesn't have the body of a supermodel, her nakedness wouldn't be sexy and was shown onscreen "for no reason."
I think Girls deliberately uses the nudity of all its characters to push back against the unrealistic depictions of male and female bodies in other media. And I wish the star and producers hadn't used an inartfully-phrased question to sidestep that valid and interesting conversation. Instead, they focused on putting down the writer, and the whole exchange became another story about a train-wreck moment during a press conference.
My own question about why Girls seems to struggle with ethnic diversity, many months after Dunham admitted it's an issue the show should address, seemed to go down easier.
"We didn't add any regular cast members second season," Dunham replied. "We were just trying to honor and serve the stories of the people that we had already introduced. And I think, third season, we are finally finding room to expand the world because we've sort of given you their backstories. We've given you their lives. But ... I've learned so much in the past few years about, sort of, intersectionality, the way that feminism has underserved women of color. I really try to educate myself in those areas, and also, we try to just make choices that we think we never want to start a storyline that we are going to kind of let flitter off. So, now, we are finding ways to introduce people who are more lasting, because we are ready to kind of open up the worlds of these girls."
The short version of that answer seemed to be: stay tuned. But that didn't get turned into a story on AOL's homepage in the way the dustup over nudity did.
The fact remains: There are few news events as odd and journalistically challenging as the TCA press tours. And as TV shows get more complex — while journalists covering them increasingly ride the line between independent critics and professional fans — our attempts to have real conversations about them will only get tougher.
Good thing the public gets to learn from our mistakes — even when the effort to push back on important questions gets lost in translation.
Eric Deggans is reporting from the Television Critics Association winter press tour.