Blog: Saving the timid TV press from itself

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

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“I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed.” — Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones (1814)

In his own day, the very press Thomas Jefferson so ardently defended disappointed him. Still, he knew, the ideal of a free press was vital to preserve. The press had a responsibility to act as a government watchdog and thereby to inform our citizenry about matters vital to self-governance. Two centuries later, that ideal is disgraced, too often by those entrusted with preserving it.

When it comes to interviewing sitting and past presidents, the American broadcast and cable press is a pretty pathetic lot. Timid, vapid, and insipid are words that come to mind when I think of how the TV press all too frequently performs its job in this realm. There are exceptions, but they are just that. Thankfully, there is some hope — the folks at Fox News may yet save the electronic Fourth Estate from its craven and clichéd self.

That’s right, I said Fox News. As someone of liberal persuasion who nonetheless tries to keep an open mind, I surely have qualms about the “fair and balanced” cable crowd at Fox. Though I will say a few things on that score towards the end of this piece, I will save my larger criticism for another time.  Today, I come to praise them, albeit guardedly, and here is why.

In recent times Fox News has brought us two of the more hard-hitting and thoughtful TV interviews of American presidents. I refer to the March 17 interview Bret Baier did with President Barack Obama, and the Sept. 24, 2006, Chris Wallace interview with former President Bill Clinton. Both interviews were civil and generally respectful but nonetheless vigorous and well-informed. In some respects, they are examples of a vibrant press using the First Amendment to perform the job that James Madison and his colleagues intended it to do.

Bret Baier & Barack Obama
First of all, kudos to our president for going into the lion’s den — a Fox News program. And kudos, too, to Bret Baier, the 39-year-old former White House correspondent for Fox, for being well-prepared and for conducting a hard-hitting interview. Here is a sample from the exchange:

Bret Baier: “You have said at least four times in the past two weeks, quote, ‘The United States Congress owes the American people a final up-or-down vote on health care.’ So, do you support the use of this 'Slaughter rule'? The 'deem and pass' rule, so that Democrats avoid a straight up-or-down vote on the Senate bill?”

Baier’s editorial adjectives aside, this was a fair and important question. Any president should be held to account if he says one thing to the American public and then proceeds to do something else. The press should be willing to call him on that. Unfortunately, President Obama did not quite answer that question. Rather, he devoted most of his reply to discussing the purported merits of the proposed health-insurance bill, though at one point he did, if only briefly and opaquely, address the question.

President Obama: “… I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what the procedural rules are, in the House or in the Senate . . . .”

Baier: “But, Mr. President, this Monday — ”

Obama (interrupting): “Brett, let me finish. … So, Washington, gets very concerned about these procedural issues in Congress, this is always an issue, whether Republicans are in charge or Democrats are in charge … .”

Baier: “… OK, back to the original question … .”

At this point, the president continued to discuss the merits of the proposed bill and said little or nothing about the process by which the bill might be passed.

Baier: “So you support the deem-and-pass rule?”

Obama: “What I’m saying is, that whatever they end up voting on, and I hope it is by the end of this week, that it is going to be a vote for or against my health-care proposal. And that’s what matters … .”

Baier: “Monday, in Ohio, you called for courage in this health-care debate. At the same time, House Speaker Pelosi was saying this to reporters, about the deem-and-pass bill: ‘I like it, this scenario, because people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.’ I mean, is that the kind of courage you’re talking about?”

Obama: “Well, here’s what’s taking place.  We both know what’s going on.  You’ve got a Senate bill that was passed that had provisions that needed to be changed.  Right? … . Now, a lot of the members of the House legitimately say, ‘We want to vote on a package, as the president has proposed, that has those fixes embedded in it. Now, that may mean they have to sequence the votes, but the ultimate vote they are taking is on whether or not they believe in the proposal I’ve put forward … .”

Regrettably, the president filibustered too much and evaded too often, which, to be sure, is common among politicians. He never really actually told Americans why the integrity of the legislative process, as he once described it, was now of little or no moment when it came to legislation he favored. On that score, his answers were fuzzy. The president’s performance was akin to Muhammad Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” tactic. In the political arena, that may make for good show (Howard Cosell would have loved it!), but it does so at the expense of keeping citizens ill-informed about the workings of our government.  That is why we need a relentless press.

At the end of his interview with the president, a beleaguered but respectful Bret Baier said: “I apologize for interrupting you so much, but I was trying to get the most for our buck here. Thank you very much for your time.”

Chris Wallace & Bill Clinton
Here again, this was a rough-and-tumble sort of interview, though both men remained civil. Wallace asked some tough questions, the kind that one might expect from a purportedly conservative station. Still, the questions Wallace asked were important and it was necessary to get clarity on them. In that regard, the public was well-served and informed by the exchange.  Here are a few excerpts:

Chris Wallace: “Why didn’t you do more to put Bin Laden and al-Qaida out of business when you were president?” (Wallace then continued to ask several more pointed questions to the same effect.)

Whatever one thinks of the Clinton administration, it was a fair question. In responding, Clinton gave a point-by-point answer that was both comprehensive and informative. By not dodging the question, Clinton helped the American public learn some things about why, as he recounted it, more was not and could not be done at the time. So far, so good. But Clinton felt wronged by the very fact that the question was raised in the first place. Here is how he responded on that count:

Bill Clinton: “You did Fox’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit-job on me.”

Wallace: “You don’t think that’s a legitimate question?”

Clinton: “It’s a perfectly legitimate question, but I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question to. … You people ask me questions you don’t ask the other side.  … You’ve got that little smirk on your face, you think you’re so clever.”

Wallace: “You seem upset. But I’m asking you these questions because they’re on people's minds, sir.”

Even granting Clinton’s point about bias does not discount the fact that Wallace had every right to ask such hard-hitting questions, along with follow-up questions.

Though some have criticized Baier and Wallace for their tough tactics, I think the larger problem cuts in the other direction. We don’t have enough TV reporters like them. That is, we don’t have enough persistent and knowledgeable TV reporters willing to get to the nub of an issue, no matter how evasive a president might try to be.

As for Fox News, one problem, if I may say so, is that it doesn’t seem to be anywhere as uninhibited in its interviews with conservative politicians. True, its reporters sometimes ask challenging questions, but the most robust and continuous line of queries appears to be saved for politicians on the other side of the political divide. Another problem – and here Fox hardly stands alone – is the blurring of theatrics and rhetorical flourish with real news, with all the highfalutin add-ons plugged into a program. But again, that is a matter for another day. For now, I want to underscore the importance of vigorous and informed interviews with our president and other important government officials.

In this TV era geared largely toward amusement and trivia, we sorely need to reinvigorate the Madisonian ideal. To that end, if we expect more of the press and our politicians, we might just get more.
Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington Law School and a fellow at the First Amendment Center. His next book is The Fundamental Holmes:  A Free Speech Chronicle and Reader (Cambridge University Press, June 2010).

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