An analysis of R. Kelly’s media meltdown, and becoming your own worst public enemy

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop  

Listen to podcast version here

R&B singer R. Kelly being interviewed by Gayle King. Image courtesy  CBS News .

R&B singer R. Kelly being interviewed by Gayle King. Image courtesy CBS News.

When I’m asked to prepare a public figure for a high-stakes media interview, we typically schedule a conference call with some members of their team.  We go over the subject matter, the goals for the training, and the time and equipment needs.  And if it’s someone I’ve never worked with before, I always ask this two-part question:

Are they coming into the training willingly?  Or are they being dragged into the process kicking and screaming? 

It’s a critical question.  If you’re not inclined to listen to sound advice, if you have a proclivity for self-sabotage - or both - the last place you want to be is in front of a network television camera.  

Which brings us around to the strange case of R. Kelly, played out in all its oddity on a virtual national stage.  Kelly, an R&B singer dogged by sex allegations for years, sat down with CBS News correspondent Gayle King to defend himself following his indictment on 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse.  

I doubt that anyone helped R. Kelly prepare for the fateful interview.  Gayle King herself expressed surprise that Kelly had even agreed to appear.  So she asked him why.   

“I’m very tired of all the lies,” Kelly said - thinking, perhaps, that this blanket statement would somehow settle the matter.  It didn’t, of course, because King asked the natural follow up question.   

“What are the lies you are hearing that disturb you most?”

Kelly, fresh out of a stint in jail, proceeded, in a media sense, to lock himself behind bars all over again.  In a litany of self hurt, he repeated the long list of the charges against him. 

“Got little girls trapped in the basement… handcuffing people, starving people… I have a harem…”

Kelly was attempting to dismiss these allegations as fantasy.  But he broke a fundamental rule about handling negative questions.  He repeated all the negatives – thereby succeeding only in reinforcing them in the listener’s mind.  He even offered up a new line of attack to his adversaries that no one had yet thought of. 

“They was describing Lucifer,” Kelly said, referring to his accusers.  “I’m not Lucifer.” 

Since Kelly’s answers were long on denials but short on evidence, Gayle King did what most reporters do on instinct: she pressed for specifics.  Unprepared to offer positive, exculpatory evidence, Kelly eventually recognized he was in a mess of his own making.  He finally exploded in rage - in a clip that has since gone viral.

Emotion on television is supposed to evoke what pioneering CBS News producer Fred Friendly once called “the little picture.”  There is a reason why photographers go for the closeup in spontaneous, genuine moments of tears, joy, or even controlled anger.  Those aspects of the human persona evoke a mirror-like human reaction in us all.  They draw us in.  

Rage, on the other hand, has the opposite effect.  It pushes us away.  We may stare in disbelief for a moment, as if we were slowing down to gawk at a bad car crash.  But soon, if the scene is too painful or too bloody, we speed up and drive off.  Our principal response is fight or flight. 

Kelly could have avoided making this bad situation worse by being ready to rebut his accusers, point for point - and focusing on whatever positive themes were relevant, instead of unspecific denials of the negatives.  But if clearing his name was the primary objective in this interview, Kelly failed miserably.  The real winner in this faceoff was Gayle King.  She displayed coolness, professionalism and focus in the face of her subject’s embarrassingly public media meltdown.

A CBS correspondent and anchor from another era - Dan Rather - once authored a book entitled, “The Camera Never Blinks.”   If you’re on TV often enough and long enough, Rather observed, there is no hiding.  You will eventually come across for who you are. 

From a legal standpoint, the court system will inevitably determine the guilt or innocence of R. Kelly.  But the court of public opinion may already be delivering the ultimate verdict of who he is.  Given how many eyeballs slowed down to gawk at this media car crash, all the kicking and screaming didn’t help.

Listen to the podcast of this Press Center Commentary here.