Jan Helfeld is a veteran journalist who has conducted interviews by practicing the Socratic Method when interviewing public officials, media pundits and campaign representatives. He sat down with DigitalJournal.com to talk media and politics.
Anger. Vulgarity. Evasion. These are only some of the terms to describe how an interviewee behaves after a few moments in a Jan Helfeld interview.
You may have seen his videos on YouTube, which have generated a total of more than 1.15 million views. A politician getting vehemently upset over a line of questioning, which has led some to verbally attack (former CIA director James Woolsey), threaten physical assault (Congressman Pete Stark) and storm off or leave the set (anchor George Stephanopoulos). Helfeld says this is just part of the job and he takes it on the chin.
“Politicians are used to pretending that they answer when they haven’t and I don’t accept pretense,” Helfeld said in a phone interview. “I respect their right not to answer, but I don’t respect their right to pretend they’ve answered when they haven’t.”
Jan Helfeld Interviews
Jan Helfeld interviewing MSNBC's Howard Fineman.
Since the 1990s, Helfeld, a libertarian who uses the Socratic form of interviewing to find the contradictions in a person’s line of thinking, has conducted numerous interviews with high-esteemed officials, such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, Senator Bernie Sanders, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Congressman Jim Moran and many, many others.
Helfeld has also captured interviews with members of the mainstream media. During this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Helfeld sat down with the likes of CNN personalities Wolf Blitzer, David Gergen, Erin Burnett, Howard Kurtz and John King, CBS News correspondent Chip Reid, radio host Michael Medved, MSNBC host Chris Matthews and ABC News television commentator Jonathan Karl.
In each of his interviews, Helfeld asks questions from the libertarian philosophical perspective: “can you delegate a right that you do not have?” “should the government protect peaceful citizens against people that want to use force to take their money?” and “is taxation voluntary?”
For a libertarian, sometimes it may be difficult to listen to some of the answers given that are antithetic to the philosophy, but Helfeld stated that his adherence is to the truth and his purpose is to identify the contradictions. He noted, however, that some individuals view his work as antagonizing, but it is not his intention as he likes to maintain a cordial and friendly interview.
“Unfortunately, when a person is confronted with the fact they have a contradiction, often they react with anger and they lash out at me,” explained Helfeld, host of The Bottom Line. “My job is to take it on the chin and stick to the topic and stick to the substance of the interview and make it clear to the viewer what the truth is.
Coming from the Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises schools of thought – better known as Austrian Economics – Helfeld says if he sees a public policy that he disagrees with that is statist, welfarist or socialist, his job is to examine the person’s premise to see if it makes sense.
“I think it doesn’t make sense so I know why I disagree so I’m going to ask questions that I think is going to lead somebody to a contrary conclusion,” stated Helfeld, an attorney, who feels the government should limit itself to protecting the rights of its people and not investing their money for them. “Sometimes they offer contradictory answers and at that point my job is to identify for the viewer the fact that the interviewee has contradicted himself.”
One of the best examples of this is an interview Helfeld conducted with Nancy Pelosi. The topic of the interview was about minimum wage laws, which he feels is not a policy of perpension and has issued a parade of unintended consequences for the impoverished and less-skilled.
In the discussion, Helfeld tried to clarify Pelosi’s double standard about minimum wage because she is a proponent of the policy, but she doesn’t give her interns an hourly rate and instead pays them a stipend to perform infrequent work, like for the summer or as part of their education, or doesn’t pay them at all.
He asked if a person wanted to volunteer to be paid less than the minimum wage at McDonald’s would that be allowed? She said no, but then in the next breath she explained that if someone wants to work in her office for free she allows it.
“In the case of Nancy Pelosi, her basic contradiction is that she thinks it’s OK for her not to pay people the minimum wage, but other people must pay the minimum wage and whether you agree with minimum wage or not, obviously it cannot be the truth that it’s right for her not to pay and force others to pay the minimum wage,” said Helfeld.
Pelosi ended the interview.
Another example of an immediate contradiction was a recent interview Helfeld accomplished with former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele at CPAC 2012. Helfeld asked if he opposed all forms of redistributionist of wealth, he replied, “If it’s coming out of my pocket? Absolutely.” Minutes later, Steele said he supports programs like Medicaid.
Where is he on television?
Jan Helfeld Interviews
Jan Helfeld interviews CNN commentator Dana Loesch.
For years now, Helfeld has been able to catch politicians, political officials, television and radio hosts and others in an incongruity that is ubiquitous within minutes. Of course, many of the YouTube viewers have found these interviews to be highly entertaining, but why hasn’t Helfeld been exposed in mainstream media television?
He has been very close throughout his career, but he explained that a lot of doors must be opened to get hired at a network like Fox News or ABC. There have been instances where networks have agreed to use him, but later retract the agreement.
Those in charge of hiring or bosses of certain networks have as well misunderstood his work as inimical and its purpose is to get people angry.
“That’s one of the misunderstandings: they think I’m Bruno; Sacha Cohen, I’m trying to provoke them or get reactions to make people embarrassed. I don’t try to do that.”
Nonetheless, Helfeld is quite confident in his work and believes it’s the best product on the shelf, but first it needs to get on the shelf.
“I think this product, Socratic interviewing, is so powerful and so much better than any other product on the shelf,” stated Helfeld. “All I need to do is get on the shelf and get enough visibility to be successful.”
He isn’t the only one who thinks so, though. Bill Kurtis, the A&E host, who also anchored CBS Morning News, told Helfeld, upon viewing some of his interviews with politicos, such as Vice President Joe Biden, that his work is “interesting.”
“I think it could be a very interesting show. I think you have provoked some wonderful issues and I would encourage you to pursue [further],” said Kurtis, a multiple Emmy award winner.
You can check out Helfeld’s collection of interviews by heading over to his YouTube channel or The Bottom Line website.