Two nights ago on Piers Morgan’s show on CNN, Delaware Senatorial candidate and Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell did something that has a long lineage in news broadcasting: she walked off an interview. Like the Bee Gees, the Bachelorette, Tommy Davis and Paris Hilton before her, O’Donnell bailed on the interview when it veered into controversial territory (her stance on same-sex marriage). Booked on the show to promote her new book, she remarked that Morgan’s prodding was infringing upon the office of interviewer, probing into an area of discussion not agreed upon, not warranted, and–apparently–offensive.

I’m less interested in O’Donnell and Morgan per se, than in the dynamic that played out here. Morgan’s questions put O’Donnell in a position where she was bound to become an object of judgment for those waiting to pounce. O’Donnell, in the moment of impending critique, eluded what she viewed as imminent (and, in her opinion, unnecessary) condemnation by using another legality as self-defense. It seems to me that this represents a universal move of reaction, that is both fight (with the laws of interviewer protocol) and flight (from the condemnation trolling beneath her response).

By pointing at what an authority (the interviewer, the psychiatrist, the spouse, the priest!) can and cannot say, we may just as well be announcing the fact that we don’t like what’s being said about us, to us–it has evidently struck a nerve!

The walk-off, in other words, is a response to penetrating expectations. What’s really happening when one “walks off”? Certainly, as NPR’s Linda Holmes noted, this was a great help to Piers Morgan’s show; people love the hot-seat kind of conflict. Suddenly a low-poll show (whose host just happens to be embroiled in Murdoch-related allegations) gets all kinds of hits on YouTube, and a reputation unexpectedly arises that Morgan “gets at people”, all because a very routine interview got shut down. Particularly with a walk-off, there’s generally a question that’s intended to derail or break the subject, a low-blow if you will, one that digs too deeply into some wound of the subject’s. This was the case with Paris Hilton’s botched interview with ABC’s Dan Harris, after he asked her if she felt her “time had passed.” The implied assumption is that people are thinking it. And the walk-off, rather than a tactful admonition to her interviewer, no doubt confirms that Paris Hilton thinks about it, too. Such a public display of judgment evokes reciprocity in response–a lot is at stake!–and it usually means a lot of tactful skirting. Sometimes, though, you just gotta run!

This isn’t to make a case for Piers Morgan’s insensitivity, nor is it an approval of O’Donnell’s evasion–instead, it’s a pretty good illustration of what anybody does when the scalpel gets too close. Here’s what NPR had to say:

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.