Ai Weiwei on CNN with Christiane Amanpour (2010)

Are you prepared for media coverage success—or are you facilitating a media coverage disaster? A standard feature in the media/comm field, analyzing interviews, can help raise awareness to steer the communication in the desired direction.

(ADP staff—) The bigger they are, the harder they fall—so the saying goes... Recent coverage of BP communications concerning the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster has quickly become a textbook example—and who can forget Sarah Palin’s prime-time interview by Katie Couric? But what about artists, designers and their teams?

Clearly the same opportunity for failure is readily available, that is, when the visual artist is of enough “news interest”. Plus it is indeed amazing from a standard media/comm perspective how unprepared and unknowledgeable many in the visual arts sector can be. Anyone can make a painting, right? And anyone can be interviewed by the media... But like the painting, learning the fundamentals—and the "form"—increases the quality of the performance.

To quickly get up to speed, analyzing interviews, and raising media awareness, is a positive step forward. "Oh, but not me, I’ve been interviewed by lots of [non-threatening] arts journalists, so I’m very prepared." Are you? So thought BP executives, many politicians including Palin, and a few artists and designers we know. Standard experience is that people have to get burned to get it, which is no problem for those in the media/communications industry. Several consultants can offer pricy remedies for crisis management, and in this global economy, your extra income will be very appreciated.

With this in mind, we asked L.A. Roka to analyze an interview of Chinese social artist-activist Ai Weiwei by CNN’s Christian Amanpour broadcast earlier this year. While certainly not a confrontational interview like one sees on BBC’s HardTalk or on the USA’s FOXnews, Ai could easily get it wrong with the nature of his art and his social-political context.

L. A. Roka is a frequent contributor and Editorial Advisor to the Art Design Publicity magazine project. Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, Roka has worked both as an academic and as a practitioner in media and public relations. He is also a journalism history scholar specializing in music criticism as well as how public debates about issues are managed and conducted.

Ai Weiwei interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Part I.

L.A. Roka: In the first moment of the interview, Christiane Amanpour clearly sets the tone and frame of the interview by noting the artist is working at the peak of dissent. However, in order to prime the discussion for that most significant theme, Amanpour establishes a trusting rapport with Ai Weiwei, giving him enough time to tell his background and story. In the first few minutes, Amanpour’s questions are short and economical, often using the artist’s own words to probe or clarify further. Feeling increasingly comfortable that his artistic persona and message are being communicated without interference and without need to corroborate the details of his story, Ai is generous in what he reveals.

The pace starts to pick up when Christiane Amanpour turns to the shattered dynastic vase and the artist picks up effortlessly on the cues, and the dialogue is remarkably natural even as Amanpour’s questions become more frequent. Yet, she is so nuanced not to clip off Ai’s responses. She is guiding him toward the thematic path she set the stakes for at the outset. As a result, he is able to explain why the shattered metaphor is essential to his artistic statement.

Ai Weiwei interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Part II,
featuring Pat Mitchell, President, The Paley Center for Media—
and a clip of Jack Dorsey, Co-founder and Chairman of Twitter.

L.A. Roka: Here, Christiane Amanpour’s nonverbal cues are crucial to how she easily facilitates the interview especially as she asks Ai Weiwei to discuss why he decided to boycott the Beijing Olympics even after he participated in the architectural design of the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. In another interview setting, Ai might appear defensive or even challenged to explain any potential hypocrisy in his decision. However, Ai feels perfectly relaxed in Amanpour’s setting, especially as she nods affirmatively, leans slightly forward, and has her eyeglasses off to the side. The eye contact ensures that this natural interview dance will continue. Likewise, Ai comfortably explains why he pursued revealing the names of those killed in the Sichuan earthquake.

In the brief exchange about the dangers of his artistic dissent and activism, Ai Weiwei’s response reinforces the rapport he has with this well-known Western journalist. He talks about the objective of uncovering the truth and challenging inaccurate information, speaking directly to the journalist’s most fundamentally significant role. It is a tacit understanding that journalists and artists share the risks of physical harm, imprisonment or even death in this journey of discovering the truth.

Ai Weiwei interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Part III,
featuring Pat Mitchell, President, The Paley Center for Media.

L.A. Roka: Following up on Pat Mitchell’s assessment that Twitter or any social media tool on its own cannot change government, Christiane Amanpour gives Ai the opportunity to reinforce the significance of his responsibility to be as engaged and involved as possible even as the Chinese government persistently tries to suppress his blog and other forms of communication. Once again, in another setting, Ai Weiwei’s response might be defensive, especially when Amanpour asks why is he still able to move freely around in China even as they block access to his blog and other communication tools. Here, Mitchell backs up Ai’s experience of having his phone tapped or the security of his bank account breached, adding that this “is the dark side of technology.” Amanpour graciously gives Ai one final opportunity to reiterate his hopeful message that transformation can occur in China. Throughout the interview, Ai’s demeanor was consistent, almost nearly as descriptive and reportorial as one might expect had a journalist been interviewed.

Final thoughts

R.J. Preece, Editor: Wow Les—this assessment is doubly written me thinks: insightful, respectful, with a tinge of suspicion and spotlighting an orchestrated performance. Well done!

Hey, do you think that Ai Weiwei has had media training?

L.A. Roka: Ai’s experience is intuitive, I believe.

Those who come from the background of nations with state-run media have a distinct distrust/suspicion of journalists in general so they understand viscerally the essential need and art of how they craft their statements and messages. That being said, they also may get more immediately and directly the power of media to frame a story and shape an agenda.

Granted, with Western media, they are on more assuring territory although they also know the Western media agenda values the opportunity to highlight and to criticize the lack of open access in nations inhospitable to the notions of a free press. They understand better than many Westerners that media objectivity is impossible, a highly idealized theoretical notion. Also, Amanpour is very good at what she does and she works the nuances better than most international journalists.