I AM NOT A CROOK and other media miscues

The power of negative answers over positive ones is well demonstrated. Why do politicians and public speakers so often forget it?

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

Forty years ago this week, Richard Nixon was on TV ending his career.  I was on the radio starting mine.

I was still in my teens, a full time student and a part time newscaster at a popular AM radio station on Long Island, New York, trying hard to sound older and more experienced than I really was.  But I still count my 755 pm roundup on the evening of August 8, 1974 as among the most memorable of my career.

 Richard Nixon "preserved head" on the TV cartoon series "Futurama." 

Richard Nixon "preserved head" on the TV cartoon series "Futurama." 

Most Americans today did not live through the Watergate scandal that brought President Nixon down.  Their impressions are formed by history books, or more likely, through lingering popular culture references.  (Fans of the TV cartoon series Futurama, for instance, know Nixon as a crochety preserved head.)  

And then there's the five word phrase that for all of Nixon's multitude of accomplishments and his legion of sins, we most closely associate with him to this day:  "I am not a crook."  For public speakers of all stripes, those words hold an important lesson about how not to respond to a challenge from the audience.  

Nixon uttered those words at a press conference in November, 1973.  He was addressing a convention of newspaper editors in Orlando, Florida.  His infamous answer came in response to a question about Watergate - a question whose intent Nixon saw as malevolent.  (It's well documented that Nixon was no fan of newspaper editors.)

"People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook," Nixon intoned.  "Well, I'm not a crook.   I've earned everything I've got."  

Put politics aside for a moment and focus on language.  The positive - "I've earned everything I've got" - got lost in the negative "I am not a crook."  Unwittingly, Nixon demonstrated the established principle that negative responses to negative questions acquire a life of their own.  If the issue is big enough, those responses can follow you to the grave, and beyond.   

Researchers have long known that human beings have something known as a "negativity bias" - in short, we have greater recall of, and give greater weight to, negative experiences over positive ones.   "Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good," wrote Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University, in co-authoring a 2001 paper entitled, "Bad is Stronger than Good".

You would think that politicians, who have long accepted the premise that attack ads work because of their inherent negativity, would absorb that lesson and avoid negativity in statements about themselves.  But they don't.    

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Earlier this year, New Jersey governor Chris Christie hoped to put questions about the so-called "Bridge-gate" arm-twisting scandal to rest by holding a 2-hour news conference and answering every conceivable question from reporters.    "I am not a focus-group tested, blow-dried candidate or governor, " Christie said.  "I am not a bully."  No wonder that USA Today's front page carried that very quote the following day.  

The antidote, of course, is to remember always to try to answer a negative question positively.  The problem is, doing the opposite is our first reaction.  We fool ourselves into thinking we are effectively swatting down the negative when we all we do is reinforce it.  "I am not, I was not, I did not."  All  we do is make it bigger.  

"When I was in high school, I used to play basketball," a recent trainee told me.  "And when I'd get to throw a foul shot, my coach would yell at me from the sidelines.   'Whatever you do,' he said, DON'T MISS!'   

"I never remembered don't," my trainee concluded.  "All I remembered was miss."  

Unfortunately, I don't think he was old enough to remember Richard Nixon.