What to do when Pam Zekman comes calling
Editor's note: Robert Feder is off until July 13. While he's away, we're running "The Best of Feder." The following post originally appeared on Feb. 15, 2010:
For years, the seven most dreaded words in the English language were: "Mike Wallace is here to see you." So feared was the grand inquisitor of "60 Minutes" that mere mention of his name made corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen and other assorted scoundrels quake in their loafers.
Wallace, 91, is officially retired from "60 Minutes" now, and the interrogation style that he made famous is rarely seen on network television these days. But in Chicago, there's still one investigative reporter whose name evokes a similar reaction of abject panic. I'm referring to Pam Zekman, the diminutive dynamo of WBBM-Channel 2.
For nearly 30 years at the CBS-owned station‚ -- and 10 years before that at Chicago's two daily newspapers -- Zekman, 65, has been a unique force of nature who pursues her journalistic targets with the zeal and passion of the early 20th‚ century muckrakers. The sight of her shoving a microphone in the face of a hostile character or chasing a fleeing subject down the street with camera in tow became as familiar to local viewers as Bozo's big shoes or Skippy's suspenders.
Twice in the past week or so, I've received calls from friends -- one in government and the other in private practice -- informing me that Pam Zekman was poking around the business of people close to them. Although the two matters were totally unrelated, the concern and stress I could hear in my friends' voices were practically the same. Both asked how I thought they should handle Zekman's inquiries. Of course, I told them of my great respect for her and the work she's done over a terrific four-decade career (being honored by her peers this year with her Silver Circle induction). And, for what it's worth, here's the free advice I gave to them and I'll share with you:
- Don't duck her. The worst thing you can do is refuse to cooperate. It gives you no voice in the story, forfeits your opportunity to correct the facts and makes you look guilty as hell. Zekman is a master of knocking on closed doors, demanding simple answers to complicated questions and, as noted above, chasing people down the street. They're all little dramas designed to shed more heat than light. You don't want to be seen in those scenarios.
- Never say "no comment." That's another way to appear guilty even if you're not. Lawyers who advise clients to say "no comment" may think they're acting in their best interests legally, but they're killing them in the court of public opinion. Even an innocuous statement of concern or acknowledgement of the issue is better than stonewalling.
- Set your limits. Just because you've agreed to cooperate doesn't mean you become a powerless pawn in Zekman's hands. You can negotiate where and when the interview will take place. You can set a reasonable time limit in advance. You can even choose not to go on camera at all. Under certain circumstances, you may insist on being interviewed without cameras present or responding to questions in writing rather than in person. People do it all the time.
- Be honest. Never, ever lie. You are not obligated to reveal everything you know, but be sure whatever you do say is the truth.
- Act preemptively. If the matter in question can be corrected simply -- perhaps by providing a refund, making necessary repairs or offering a sincere apology -- do so before the interview with Zekman. Nothing is more disarming than telling her you've already solved the problem she's come to ask about. It may not kill the story entirely, but it certainly will make you look better if you've already made amends.
- Protect yourself. If you're going to submit to an interview on camera, make an audio recording of it for yourself. The point is not to intimidate Zekman (who, quite honestly, is beyond intimidation by anyone at this point), but to give yourself a backup in case questions of context or disputes about editing arise after the story airs.
- Don't worry. What's the worst that can happen? As with all of local news, Channel 2's ratings are a far cry from what they used to be. Sure you may find yourself utterly humiliated before the six percent of television households in the Chicago area tuned in to the 10 o'clock newscast on an average night. But that still leaves the other 94 percent who'll never know a thing about it.
[A followup note: After this piece ran, a CBS 2 executive pointed out to me that I had failed to factor in the online component, adding: "An interested party can hear about Pam's story and easily find it on our website. That gives a good investigative piece a lot more clout and longevity than it would have otherwise had. This is true for all enterprise/investigate work these days, regardless of the venue."]