Free Brian Williams…and Malcolm Gladwell

Free Brian Williams…and Malcolm Gladwell

August 2, 2018

Mr. Malcolm Gladwell
c/o Little, Brown & Company
3 Center Plaza
Boston, MA 02108

Re: Free Brian Williams…and Malcolm Gladwell

Dear Mr. Gladwell,

Many thanks for your Season 3, episode 4, Revisionist History podcast entitled “Free Brian Williams”; this episode was fascinating for its view of the effects of time slice memory error.

Given your reaction to Matt Lauer’s interview questions and the indignation you leveled at him for his treatment of Williams, I thought you also might appreciate being freed. I could feel you twisting into knots through these comments:

“The Today Show interview was billed as tough-minded, uncompromising journalism. It was the opposite. An interrogation about memory conducted by someone who hasn’t the slightest clue how memories work.”

It was this remark where your exasperation came and had you in a Full Nelson:

“From Rockefeller Center, where the Today Show is taped, two of the world’s leading experts on memory are four subway stops away…how hard is this?!”

And then finally…

“So Matt Lauer is saying that he would rather Williams HAD (emphasis yours) lied and confessed that he lied rather than having told the truth that he honestly thought he was telling the truth. The Council of Cardinals could not make sense of the moral logic of that!”

You’re right about all the above, but here’s permission to let go of Lauer. On the Today Show, Matt Lauer was one of the most predictable interviewers on air. Lauer’s interview of Brian Williams wasn’t an interrogation – it followed a standard interview script. I’ll bet Williams knew what question was coming even before it was asked, because he used the same exact formula for 20+ years.

For more than two years, our team at the Predictive Media Network reviewed the questions asked in hundreds of interviews. After statistical analysis, we discovered a clear pattern.

Interviewers ask six question types, in a predictable sequence. Take a moment to free yourself from any torment Lauer may have caused by his interaction with Williams. Lauer didn’t, as you suggest, “put on a high hat.”

He was simply performing the predictable interviewing sequence:

  • Question Type 1: Open-ended. Open-ended questions typically start an interview to set up the reason and meaning behind a particular event, providing context for the story.
  • Question Type 2: Probes. Probes are difficult-to-answer questions (AKA “gotcha questions”), designed as a litmus test of rationality.
  • Question Type 3: Clarifiers. Clarifying questions do not require an interviewee to formulate an opinion, but instead ask for an exact fact, a specific comparison or a list of information.
  • Question Type 4: Hypotheticals. Hypothetical questions ask sources to speculate about the disposition of a topic using a temporal shift.
  • Question Type 5: Proxies. Proxy questions use faceless sources (e.g. many people or everyone) to create an image of investigative reporting and the illusion of knowing the bigger picture.
  • Question Type 6: Offers. Offers questions are most often used as the final question, phrased as “Anything we haven’t covered?” or “Is there anything else you would like to add?”

Have a look at the Lauer vs. Williams interview again. We’ve sliced it down to just focus on Lauer’s questions in this video. It’s OK to say, “Well I’ll be damned…” after you watch the replay.

The answer to your question, “how hard is this?” is:  actually, pretty hard. Like so many other patterns that secretly govern decision-making, choice and behavior, this pattern for journalists is hard-wired into the way they work because it allows them to get what they need from a source without having to do much else. It’s a behavior that’s as natural as a fish swimming in water, and given that, it is worth remembering the adage, “fish are the last to discover water.”

So be free – for they know not what they do! And thank you for your insightful work.

I’m a big fan of Revisionist History and appreciate the heavy lift you put into each podcast. The work is thought provoking and eminently shareable. I’m persuaded by the science presented that we should indeed free Brian Williams. Excellent and intriguing.


Jeff Hahn, Founder
Predictive Media Network