Media

The Fine Art Of Walking Out

Correction May 25, 2012

We referred to Julian Assange's walking out of an interview with CNN because he was asked about criminal charges he was facing, a reference to allegations in Sweden. Assange does not face formal legal charges. Swedish authorities have sought his extradition to answer questions relating to allegations of sexual assault.

Last night, Christine O'Donnell, who was a much-discussed Senate candidate in Delaware last year and author of a new book, walked out on her interview with CNN's Piers Morgan after he asked her to talk about gay marriage, which she said was rude, because she was there to discuss — in her words — one of "the issues that I choose to talk about in the book." Ultimately, their disagreement came down to her assertion that as a host, it's rude to ask her things other than the things she wants to be asked about. When Morgan disagreed and asked why she was being "so weird" about what she wanted to be asked, she said, "I'm being pulled away," added that she "turned down another interview for this," and left.

Walking out of an interview is certainly not new; it reportedly happened just recently with Sarah Ferguson, who didn't like it when the Australian 60 Minutes showed her some now-familiar footage of her offering access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, in exchange for cash. Julian Assange walked out of an interview with CNN in June after the interviewer asked about allegations he was facing. And it doesn't have to be over anything particularly earth-shaking: Russell Crowe bailed on a radio interview because the interviewer didn't like his accent in Robin Hood. And Paris Hilton walked out on ABC News after being asked whether she worried about her "moment having passed."

In fact, the walk-out is such an established genre that it has classics — some of them were rounded up online earlier this year, including the Bee Gees bolting with such nonchalance that at first they don't all seem to know they're doing it, and Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar flipping the script by leaving The View's interview with Bill O'Reilly.

What makes the walk-out so intoxicating is that it's actually unexpected, even though perhaps at this point, it shouldn't be. Television interviews with well-rehearsed politicians and celebrities can be painfully predictable, and the mere fact that something has happened that wasn't what was supposed to happen makes an event out of something that otherwise wouldn't be one.

O'Donnell is a perfect example. A former Senate candidate in the second-smallest state in the country talking to a CNN host who's losing in the ratings to Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow and sometimes Dr. Drew wasn't going to create a huge splash — absent that walk-out. It tends to reinforce existing positive views of both interviewer and subject, since those who like the interviewer will feel that he or she has effectively carried out the job of confrontation, and those who like the subject will feel that he or she has effectively defended against an unfair attack by the press. This is certainly the case with someone like Assange, about whom opinions are polarized before the discussion even starts.

The danger, of course, is that — and perhaps this should go without saying — it can potentially appear that you're afraid of the questions you're being asked. It's one thing to be Chris Martin of Coldplay, walking out of an interview because you're not "enjoying" it. But there's a good reason most of these tales don't involve currently active political figures: the expectation that they will sit for questioning, even on topics not of their own choosing, is higher than it is for someone promoting a book. In fact, O'Donnell repeatedly stressed that she was not running for office in explaining that she didn't feel obligated to answer questions she didn't care to discuss.

Some choose to give a lot of warnings, as did Assange, who repeatedly threatened to leave before actually doing so. Some give none at all — like the Bee Gees, who caught interviewer Clive Anderson utterly off-guard. Many land somewhere in between, as O'Donnell did, making it clear that they don't like the questioning without threatening to leave. And then they're gone.

It's hard to imagine that anything could have happened to Piers Morgan more fabulous than being walked out on by Christine O'Donnell. That's only one of the ways in which much of how you view a walk-out depends on what you consider the agreement to be between the interviewer and the subject. Many walk-outs rely on subjects who say the interviewer is asking about the wrong things — in cases like Assange's, because the questions are inherently inappropriate or, in cases like O'Donnell's, because the questions aren't what she wants to talk about and she feels she's made that clear or, in cases like Ferguson's, because the questions aren't what was agreed upon.

If the implicit agreement in being interviewed is to answer relevant questions that are put to you, then walking out means you didn't do what you said you would do. But if the implicit agreement in being interviewed is to provide an interview that will attract attention, then an interview that ends prematurely is the most successful interview of all.

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