Shooting from the hip, a radio experience

I was interviewed last Wednesday by Bob Miller on KPAM, 860am. He wanted to talk on the air with someone about President Obama’s speech to Congress, which I was planning to watch anyway, so I agreed.

Andrew Valls

Andrew Valls

I was nervous—for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t often speak to the media, and even less often where my words are being broadcast live. (I’m no Bill Lunch!) I am happy to hear myself talk in the classroom and at professional conferences, but speaking to the public—and to so many people—is still unfamiliar.

Second, I am a political theorist by training, so my real expertise is on the philosophical questions of politics—justice, democracy, rights, that sort of thing. Still, Miller wanted to speak to a political scientist at OSU about the speech, so I guess I fit the bill.

So I tried to remember what I had learned in the media training I’d received from OSU News & Communications: speak in short, declarative sentences, know what you want to say ahead of time, don’t let yourself be sidetracked.

The experience raises a number of issues about the public role of academics. As an employee of a land-grant state university, I see myself as a public servant, so when I’m asked to do this kind of thing I feel obliged to accept. But what about when professors are asked to comment on topics that are outside of their narrow specialty, as was the case here? This, I think is a tricky question.

On the one hand, I do follow national news closely, I do have a Ph.D. in political science, and I am surrounded by politics (and close observers of politics—namely my colleagues—all of the time. Also, social scientists are trained to think in a particular way (non-ideologically, among other things), so it is not out of the question that I could might have some worthwhile things to say in the six minutes I’d been allotted. After all, the level of discourse in the media is often shockingly low, so I figured that I would not bring it down much.

On the other hand, much of the authority and respect that academics get (such as it is) is based upon our expertise. We are best, and can be of best use, when speaking about issues that we have researched, written on, and where our work has passed the test of peer review and been published in professional outlets. The further we move away from our specialty, the less authority we (should) have.

I am not an expert on Obama, the presidency, Congress, economics, public policy, or any of the other relevant things that one should be an expert on in analyzing a president’s address to Congress—especially one given in the midst of economic turmoil.

The other thing is, there is no reason to think that academics would be any good at speaking to the media. I can give you a pretty good 50-minute lecture on Plato, but what can be said in six minutes? Also, in academic work, the written word is the coin of the realm, the spoken word always second-best. Why? Because the written word can be polished, arguments refined, facts checked. The spoken word is prone to error, misstatement, and shooting from the hip.

This was born out by my experience on the Bob Miller show. At one point I found myself saying that, early in his first term, Bill Clinton “decided to focus on gays in the military.” I had not planned to say this—it just came out. And I am not even sure it is accurate. Did Clinton “decide” this, or was the issue forced upon him? I don’t know, and I haven’t gone back and checked.

At another point in the interview Bob said that Obama was wrong when he asserted that the automobile was invented in the United States; it was Germany, Bob said. How could I respond? I have no idea where the car was invented—I haven’t done the research. So I said, “You may be right about that, Bob.” Brilliant.

So would I do it again? Probably. I don’t think I did a bad job. I think I said some reasonable things. And my wife called me afterward to tell me I was great. That made it all worth it.

~ Andrew Valls is an associate professor of political science.

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