Guest Essay: The Four-Minute Expert by Dr. David Schwam-Baird

UNF Political Science Professor Dr. David Schwam-Baird is a regular go to source for local media in the Jacksonville area on all things political. He has given numerous television interviews on topics ranging from domestic political affairs to complex matters of diplomacy in the Middle East. He is also a former professor of mine, so when I first began to do my own local media interviews on similarly complex topics I naturally turned to David for advice.

After all, the prospect of appearing on television to coherently and thoughtfully discuss an enormously complex topic like Middle East violence in a short three to four minute interview allowing only 20 to 30 second responses to the interviewer’s questions is a much more daunting task than one might think. Particularly for someone who has never done it before. Indeed, I recall once being asked, at the end of such an interview dealing with the rise of ISIS, how do we “bring peace to the Middle East.”

I had about 15 seconds to respond.

There was no time for a nuanced discussion of the long term consequences of the Sunni-Shia divide, western imperialism, modern misunderstandings of historic relations between East and West in the Islamic world (e.g. the crusades),  the issues that emerged from the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, or a whole host of other long term issues, much less the short term issues related more narrowly to the rise of ISIS in the summer of 2014.

Nope.

Just 15 seconds.

Yet these kinds of questions are not unusual and professors who are willing to lend their expertise to local media have to realize and adjust to the fact that what they do in the classroom will not work on television. As lecturers, historians and political scientists can enjoy an hour to flesh out their points in the classroom. They have even more time and space when publishing their arguments and views in books and articles. But the television interview is a different beast entirely, requiring very very brief, yet somehow still meaningful answers that will not mislead by omission.

So a television station could very well land the most brilliant academic specialist in the world to interview on a particular event, and yet the interview could fail to communicate anything worthwhile to the viewers if the professor does not know how to communicate effectively in this sort of situation.

Since the summer of 2014, I have done twenty-four interviews for WJXT Channel 4, First Coast News, or WBOB 600, so now I have a much better understanding of the nuances of such interviews and have even grown a bit comfortable with the format. Yet in the summer of 2014, I was worried about these things as I was scheduled for my first interviews dealing the rise of ISIS. Naturally, as David is a former mentor and has many years of experience doing this sort of thing. I asked him for advice. As always, he graciously agreed to help one of his former students and even met me for lunch to discuss it, which was a great help (not to mention great company for lunch).

At the time he also forwarded me a very useful article that he had written on the subject, titled “The Four Minute Expert.” I recall finding this very helpful then and now that I have had additional experience with this sort of media I find myself even more nodding in agreement as I reread it. So I asked David if I might share it here as a resource for other professors who find themselves in similar predicaments.

David had originally published his essay in January 2010 in the First Coast Freethinker, and so he asked them for permission for me to republish it here and they kindly agreed. It reflects not only his always thoughtful and intelligent approach to such issues, but also his great sense of humor.

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The Four-Minute Expert

by Dr. David Schwam-Baird

How do you communicate to people very important and very complicated information that those people do not want to hear? Or they may not have the background information needed to make sense of what you say? And how do you do this when given a very, very short amount of time?

In my own little bubble of Andy Warhol’s prophecy, I get invited from time to time to comment on recent events for local television and radio news programs. It usually happens when something blows up in the Middle East or Central Asia, since I have at least some claim to being an “expert” on international affairs. (Which misses the question: What is an expert? But we can leave that little impossible question for some other time.)

After some horrific event, or some new breaking controversy, they want a local “expert” to give an explanation that their viewers or listeners can take in as they busily prepare for their workday. So I get contacted and invited to the station or to arrange an interview on the phone. I agree. Any opportunity to talk and, as my friends know— I talk!

At this point, the same argument gets started in my head. The argument in my head goes like this: the incident that they want me to talk about simply cannot be adequately explained in a four-minute interview. So how do I choose the point I most want to get across? How do I express the point in such a way that it doesn’t sound too extreme or too complicated, but will actually leave an impression that will get the viewers to say to themselves, “Hmmm. I never thought of it that way! Let me mull that over.”

Now it is actually the case, in my experience at least, that my most frequent interviewers are usually rather well informed. But they are under the same constraints of the slim time slots that I am. This means THEY have some points that THEY absolutely want made in four minutes. I usually have some idea of what THEY want. But I also have MY point or two points that I want made. Which means that there is a little bit of interesting maneuvering that is going on during the interview that only the interviewer and the interviewee are privy to. Which heightens my dilemma. How do I satisfy what THEY want AND make the point(s) that I feel I need to make?

Take Afghanistan. (Or, as the old vaudeville joke might be updated: “Take Afghanistan…PLEASE!!!”) Very few things in contemporary international politics are as complicated, or as crazy. There is the official Afghan government. There is the Taliban. There is al-Qaeda. There are the various national groups in the country. (Hazaras. Pashtuns. Tajiks. Uzbeks. Turkmen. You know ’em, right? And there are a few others, too.) There are the various religious groups. (Mainly Sunni Muslims. And Shia Muslims.) There are rival tribes and rival clans. There are radicals and moderates, religious fanatics and nationalist demagogues and perhaps true patriots. There are pro-Pakistanis. There are the pro-Iranians.There are the pro-Westerners. There are the pro-Russians. There are the warlords. There is the opium trade (which, by the way, supplies over 90% of the world’s heroin today.) There are smugglers. There are the blackmarket arms dealers. There are the black-market DVD player and pirated oil and Earl Gray tea dealers. (Really!)

And everyone one of these groups mixes with or overlaps every other one of these groups. Some of the Taliban are kneedeep in the drug trade. So are some of the warlords on “our” side, some of the religious fanatics are against the drug trade, and so are some of the warlords on “our” side. Some of the warlords are against us, and some of the religious fanatics are on “our” side. “Our” man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, is referred to by many people who study Afghanistan as the “President of Kabul.” (That is, few people in the know really believe that Karzai, or the official government that the West supports, has any authority, in any meaningful way, outside of the capital city.) I also put quotation marks around the word “our” because NOBODY in Afghanistan is ANYBODY’s man. For example, the Pakistanis thought they could control certain Afghani groups, including the Taliban. But, in the words of astute journalist Ahmed Rashid, “Pakistan, rather than being the masters of the Taliban, was instead becoming its victim.* (1) Could that be true of the NATO’s allies in Afghanistan as well?”

So how do I explain whether or not American policy in Afghanistan will work? In four minutes? Actually, it won’t. It can’t. It makes no sense because it does not reflect the reality that I so briefly (and, I know, simplistically) outlined above. No outside power has been able to get its way in Afghanistan since the last Mongol rulers some 500 years ago. In fact, Afghanistan was created because neither the British (who ruled a quarter of the world at the time in the 1800s) nor the Russians (who also ruled a sizeable portion of the world) could subdue the people of the region. So Afghanistan was created as a buffer state. So the Brits and czarist Russians failed. The Russians under the Soviets failed. The Pakistanis failed. And NATO might have al-Qaeda in a corner, but they don’t have anyone else under control in Afghanistan. (And al-Qaeda is not an Afghani entity, anyway).

But how do I get at least some fragment of this across without alienating the people I want to inform? I need to choose some salient point from the list of points I’ve oh-so-briefly listed, those frustratingly complicated points. I need to form it so that it can be grasped, and then I have to throw it into the interview, as articulately but also as succinctly as possible and in a way that will actually be considered.

And, hey… that’s just Afghanistan. Imagine when I am being interviewed about the Israelis and the Palestinians!

So what do I emphasize in a four-minute interview? What, I ask myself before each interview, what will that point be? What do I say, and how do I say it, in a way that won’t immediately make people tune me out? Each time, I have to sort of play it by ear. Sometimes, the point I decided on the evening before the interview changes within a split-second during the interview, as the direction of the interview changes. I have to give some of the sought after answers to my interviewers. And then I have to use that as a springboard to make my point.

My one point.

My one point that might, maybe, stick in the head of some viewer or listener who isn’t familiar with the whole complicated story.

Well. At least, the one thing I always know, give me a mic, and — I talk!

(c) David Schwam-Baird- Originally published in First Coast Freethinker, January, 2010.

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(1) Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalismin Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 186.

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