National Press Club

Sesno tells National Press Club audience asking questions, listening is important

January 26, 2017 | By Louise Walsh | ldwalsh@earthlink.net

Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, left, discusses his book, “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change”, with former NPC President Mark Hamrick at the National Press Club on Jan. 24, 2017.

Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, left, discusses his book, “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change”, with former NPC President Mark Hamrick at the National Press Club on Jan. 24, 2017.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Just like his book title, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change, veteran journalist Frank Sesno asked many questions in his riveting National Press Club conversation with former NPC President Mark Hamrick on Jan. 24.

“I challenge people to ask themselves: ‘What kind of listener are you?’” asked Sesno, a former CNN anchor, White House correspondent and White House bureau chief. “Are you an interrupter” or someone who must fill every empty space?

Sesno thinks universities are successful if students leave with more questions than when they came.

“How can you be an effective leader if you don’t ask questions?” Sesno asked an audience packed with students from the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, which he directs. “Questions are not random acts of curiosity,” he said. “They have a structure.”

Ask More breaks questions down to 11 categories, each designed for a different purpose. “I wanted to do something different,” Sesno said, about why he chose to write about questions.

“There’s a difference between interviewing a scoundrel and a politician (although they may be the same), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, a teenager” or a grieving parent, Sesno said.

For each category, Sesno showcases famous and lesser-known people. NPR’s Terry Gross, for example, seeks the essence of creativity in whomever she interviews, and uses "empathy questions". Anderson Cooper asks “confrontational questions” to hold people accountable. Colin Powell uses “strategic questions” to predict a mission’s success or failure.

Sesno’s best advice for interviewers: “You have to be actually interested and you have to care!”

Should the media report every presidential tweet? Ever the teacher, Sesno told his audience to read The Elements of Journalism to discover proportionality.

When asked about the future of journalism in the Trump administration, he said he was “exhilarated and petrified."

“We’ve held our government in contempt for a very long time. It’s in our DNA.” Sesno said. “Credibility is the indelible ink of any administration, of any spokesperson.”

Sesno dislikes buzzwords. He prefers "wrong" to the word "lie" and cited statements from the new administration on its claiming a record inauguration turn-out, or the unproven claim that millions voted illegally. “That’s just wrong,” he said.

Journalism is in crisis, Sesno said. Too much “interpretive journalism," he says, is on the front pages of newspapers. “It confuses people.” They don’t know what are facts and what is interpretation.

Because we have faster access to more information than at any time in the history of the world, Sesno said, people are overwhelmed. Fake news, bogus news and, now, “alternative facts” compound the problem. He warned his students, to some nervous laughter, that if they ever cited "alternative facts" in an assignment, he’d fail them.

Sesno decried TV talk show formats with eight-member panels of journalists and "propagandists.” “What’s lost,” he said, “is the chance to interview just one person for an extended period. Senator Windbag never gets time alone.”

Returning to the importance of listening, Sesno said, “We don’t listen any more. All we do is yell!” Because I’m a natural “yapper”, he said, “I’ve got to shut up and let people speak!"

Sesno described himself as a “glass half-empty optimist.” His questions linger, like this one: “How do we engage complexity?”

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