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Journalist David Gregory: Trump Makes 2016 ‘Most Unique’ Campaign

  • By Ira Apfel
  • Published: 8/2/2016
gregoryIt’s not easy moderating a panel of high-powered global thinkers and leaders. But that’s the task at hand for David Gregory, author, ex-White House political correspondent and former host of Meet the Press. Gregory will moderate the Sunday keynote session at the AFP Annual Conference in Orlando, Fla., on October 23. Joining him are former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and economist Nouriel Roubini.

[Ed. note: This conversation has been edited for clarity.]

AFP: How does moderating a panel differ from being a reporter? What are the keys to being a good moderator?

David Gregory: Well, I think you want to listen. I think you want to be able to be a catalyst for really interesting conversation. I think if you’re really guided by your own curiosity, then you get people talking and reflecting in a way that is really compelling, and then you can create conditions where you’re elevating the conversation because people are really bouncing off of each other but their own minds are becoming stimulated by being in the presence of the other and by being stimulated by the questions.

I have been both moderator and I have also been a panelist, and I know the kind of qualities of the questions and of the conversations. Well, I would say the quality of the conversation would really be determined by the quality of the questions and you just kind of take it to a higher level. But I think it’s really important that it’s not about the moderator but you have an interesting question but that you really kind of draw into the stuff.

AFP: And I imagine so much of it has to be reading your panelists, particularly someone like Nouriel Roubini whom you might not meet until two minutes before you go on and you’re really trying to draw some personalities out.

David Gregory: And it’s more, again, knowing some of his work and some of his writings. It could be a good guide. When you have the right mix, then, yes, it’s seems to be about drawing out personalities but it’s just drawing out an interesting analyses. You want people to just have a good conversation and to be able to get to a place where they’re just imparting interesting stories and interesting things where you can draw really interesting historical lessons.

I think there’s always a desire to understand where we are and what’s happening around us to get to that place where we come to a larger understanding of the events of our time than just the objective facts of what’s happening, to really think about how things are connected and what they’re motivated by and how they fit into a larger context. And so people are interested in, if they’re like me, really getting something from it and to leave the conversation feeling like they’ve gotten a better hold on it.

AFP: In your career as a journalist, what do you think had been your most challenging story or assignment to work on?

David Gregory: I think 9/11 in the largest sense was the most challenging, because it wasn’t just 9/11 but it was the political atmosphere that it created that was important. How you report on a story that has really impacted the American people and public opinion of the country and how you’ve properly and responsibly scrutinized how the government responds to such crises, I think that becomes important. In those years you had probably the inadequate debate around the Iraq War fueled in part by a real desire on the part of the public to respond forcefully to what happened, and so they were the accessories of the Bush years and the policies that didn’t work out as well that were tied into public opinion being where it was. So I think that was an incredibly challenging story, the emotion of it in the aftermath, and then I think just the complexity of the politics as we move forward.

AFP: There’s been a lot of discussion about the media and Trump, and some people say they’ve given him too much fun in coverage or some people say that he’s got an inappropriate amount. What’s your assessment been of your peers with the coverage of Trump so far? Too much? Too little?

David Gregory: I think that that’s not really the framing. Actually, what it’s about is it’s a question of how much coverage he got. I think for a long time he was covered as a carnival-like phenomenon. Was it scrutinized? I think his competition wasn’t taking him seriously, and I think the elite of the country, including the media, were not taking him seriously. But he was offensive. He was vulgar. He was just totally unconventional and it was kind of impossible not to watch. And he was widely available. He was giving lots of interviews so it’s not like he was hiding from the media. I think once his voters started speaking and it became more of a reality and he was questioned more sharply on what his views were, then I think the coverage just became a lot tougher, and I think you’re seeing that now.

But there’s no question, I think, that the live coverage of Trump is a phenomenon. It was something that was just overdoing it on the part of the media. But in terms of his interviews, I think he’s been challenged. I think he’s been asked tough questions, and the American people have voted despite these things. He’s been exposed to have big weaknesses, and Republican voters still made him the nominee. So that’s democracy in action.

AFP: You’ve covered multiple Presidential elections. Where does this rank on the spectrum of uniqueness?

David Gregory: Well, I think they all have their quirks. We have to take a longer view in history to understand that, yeah, we’ve seen them like this before. But certainly in the modern era, this has been most unique on the Republican side. It’s certainly not on the Democratic side. If anything, the Democrats are starting to act more like how Republicans normally act. So now the idea of who’s next up and the kind of hierarchy in the party and the ultimate insider of the party, we’re seeing that with this kind of dynastic family in politics. So obviously, historically, she is the woman who could become president, the former first lady.

But I think with Trump, you have just a complete outsider. The kind of figure he is is something of a character, a billionaire businessman who wants to throw out the whole political system. That part of it is just completely different and we see this all the time. You have a candidate who becomes the master of the media. I think in this case he’s not just the master of cable or TV news environment but also of social media. He has an ability to reach more people via social media, versus Twitter alone, than the evening newscast. So I think we’re just seeing new ground and a new way to wage campaigns, a new way that people are covering campaigns. In that way, everything that Trump represents is absolutely novel.

AFP: At our conference, our attendees are going to be corporate treasurers and CFOs and one of their biggest challenges is reporting to the CEOs and the board. What’s your advice on keeping poised? Because you’re interviewing heads of state, and I imagine if it’s not second nature to you, you certainly mastered any kind of nerves.

David Gregory: I think it’s really important to connect to an audience based on authenticity and like giving something of yourself. I think the more guarded you are, the more, I don’t know, evasive you are, I think the audience can sense that. I think particularly when you’re speaking to employees, you know, everybody’s got a stake. And I think the idea that we’re in this together, whatever the enterprise is—you could be talking to your employees in a newsroom or you could be talking to your employees at a financial firm—the idea that this is a shared experience and not CEOs benefitting unequally, that if the company does well, then everybody’s going to do well.

I think bringing that shared sense of mission and some honesty about what the plus sides are and what the challenges are shows a degree of vulnerability that I think any audience likes. It’s a way for the audience to really connect to you as the speaker.

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