Monday, September 15, 2008

Full court press

After watching Claire McCaskill and Carly Fiorina on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and Bob Woodward on Meet This Press this morning, I’ve put my finger on something that has been bothering me about the Charles Gibson interview with Sarah Palin.

In general, when a newsman interviews someone, he asks a question and lets the interviewee answer. If the interviewee answers too generally or answers a question other than the one asked, the newsman may push the interviewee a little but generally does not press the issue aggressively. For example, look at this exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Even Senator Biden said this week that Hillary might have been a better pick. Did Senator Obama give the McCain campaign an opening by not picking Hillary Clinton?

MCCASKILL: Well, I think that Joe Biden is going to be a terrific vice president. Joe Biden is fully capable of stepping into the presidency at a moment’s notice.

I also think it’s important, George, once again, this issue is about being honest and forthcoming with the American people. John McCain has not told the truth about Sarah Palin . He has run an ad that is terribly distorted and full of lies about -- you’re talking about making women mad. When women figure out that John McCain has run an ad saying that when Barack Obama wanted to give education to kindergartners about how to avoid sexual predators, that in fact, they ran an ad that said that he wanted to give them sex education? I mean, this is the kind of game that’s being played on those...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no regrets about Hillary Clinton.

MCCASKILL: And by the way, speaking about honest, Sarah Palin this summer called Hillary Clinton a whiner. And now it’s oh, you know, they are being disrespectful to Hillary. I didn’t hear her say that when she was asked that before she was the vice presidential pick. And when John McCain was asked a question at a forum -- you remember this -- someone said, “how do we stop the b,” referring to Hillary Clinton, and John McCain laughed. So all -- and they had buttons at their convention (inaudible)...


After more than 1000 words, we still don’t know if McCaskill thinks Obama gave the McCain campaign an opening by not picking Clinton. Stephanopoulos got a first non-answer, tried one gentle push on the issue, got another non-answer, and let the matter go. (Although the transcript doesn’t reflect it, my husband heard Stephanopoulos say something like, “So I guess you don’t have an opinion” after McCaskill’s second non-answer.)

As a second example, look at this exchange:

MR. BROKAW: Let me ask you about what was going on in 2006 in that August meeting, especially the commander on the ground in Iraq was General Casey. He was for a troop drawdown at that time. So was his commander, General Abizaid, who was running CENTCOM out of Florida. And Don Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, thought it was time to start pulling people out of there. What would've happened in Iraq, in your judgment, if they'd had their way and the president had not gone forward with the surge?

MR. WOODWARD: You, you know, that's history, but again, I, I sat in the Oval Office four months ago and asked the president about this meeting and said, "You're saying to them, `You may send more troops.'" And he said, "Yeah. I think they got the message." And then I said, "Did you say to them, Rumsfeld, Don, General Casey, what's going on here? Your idea is too optimistic." And the president got kind of churlish and said, "Well, I don't remember my interchanges with these people." This story here is where the rubber meets the road between the commander and chief, who's the boss, and the secretary of defense and the commanding general. And there is this distance, odd detachment, time and time again, the failure to confront, the failure to deal with the reality.

Woodward’s answer is amusing but has even less to do with the question than McCaskill’s did (at least she mentioned Biden) although, to his credit, he used less than 800 words to not answer.

Now take a look at this exchange from the Gibson/Palin interview:

GIBSON: Let me talk a little bit about environmental policy, because this interfaces with energy policy and you have some significant differences with John McCain. Do you still believe that global warming is not man-made?

PALIN: I believe that man's activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change. Here in Alaska, the only arctic state in our union, of course, we see the effects of climate change more so than any other area with ice pack melting. Regardless, though, of the reason for climate change, whether it's entirely, wholly caused by man's activities or is part of the cyclical nature of our planet -- the warming and the cooling trends -- regardless of that, John McCain and I agree that we gotta do something about it and we have to make sure that we're doing all we can to cut down on pollution.

GIBSON: But it's a critical point as to whether or not this is man-made. He says it is. You have said in the past it's not.

PALIN: The debate on that even, really has evolved into, OK, here's where we are now: scientists do show us that there are changes in climate. Things are getting warmer. Now what do we do about it. And John McCain and I are gonna be working on what we do about it.

GIBSON: Yes, but isn't it critical as to whether or not it's man-made, because what you do about it depends on whether its man-made.

PALIN: That is why I'm attributing some of man's activities to potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now.

GIBSON: But I, color me a cynic, but I hear a little bit of change in your policy there. When you say, yes, now you're beginning to say it is man-made. It sounds to me like you're adapting your position to Sen. McCain's.

PALIN: I think you are a cynic because show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any affect, or no affect, on climate change.

Clearly, Palin answered Gibson’s first question about this far more directly than McCaskill or Woodward answered the questions in my first two examples. Nonetheless, as neoneocon points out, Gibson pressed for a (different? more complete? more specific?) answer three more times. Similarly Gibson pressed Palin repeatedly about whether she was experienced enough and pressed her repeatedly and incorrectly about the “task from God” issue. If the interviews had been episodes of Law and Order, Jack McCoy would had to leap up every 60 seconds to cry, “Objection, Your Honor. Question has been asked and answered.”

Obviously I’ve presented a very small sample of non-Palin interviewees and it is certainly possible to come up with instances where a newsman has aggressively pressed a well-known interviewee. Overall, though, I believe it is generally true that newsmen let interviewees answer questions as they see fit, press them lightly if at all, and then let the viewers decide if the answer is adequate. I also believe that Gibson generally pressed Palin much more aggressively than is the norm.

I don’t, however, think there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, at least in Palin’s first interview or even first few interviews, although probably not for the reason most supporters of the full court press would offer up. The usual argument for pressing Palin more aggressively would probably go something like this: Palin does not have an established reputation among the media or among the voters; therefore it’s appropriate to press for more information from her than from interviewees with a more extensive national record. That argument is fine as far as it goes but I think it’s weak unless you can show footage of Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, for example, being pressed as hard as Palin in their early interviews.

A more believable explanation is that Palin is undergoing a hazing ritual. As far as the national media is concerned, Palin is a newbie: she hasn’t been in Congress; she hasn’t made a speech at a previous Republican National Convention; she isn’t from a well-known political family. To make matters worse, while the mainstream media didn’t even have her on their radar, much of the right-leaning blogosphere had been familiar with her for several months. In other words, Palin is looking to join the most elite fraternity on the planet and not only is she some little upstart nobody from nowhere, she’s the Sweetheart of Notta Iota Arugula, a bunch of crazy losers who may know keggers and toga parties but don’t have a clue about real news. The mainstream media tried being really rude to her but she was too stupid to take the hint and drop out of rush and they can’t just ignore her - she’s been proposed for membership by one of the most venerable and powerful among them. So she’s being initiated and if that initiation is a little more, shall we say, rigorous than usual, well, desperate times call for desperate measures.

A fraternity hazing ritual often demands the retrieval of specified objects. Failure to retrieve the objects may mean rejection by the fraternity but the objects themselves are not important; rather, it’s compliance with and bearing up under the initiation process itself that is the real test.

Similarly, in Gibson’s interview of Palin the substance of her answers would be important only if she failed to present any remotely reasonable response whatsoever. What’s really being tested is Palin’s willingness to submit to this ritual and her ability to take this kind of unusual media pressure and not lose her cool. A couple more go-rounds like this and I think she’ll have demonstrated that willingness and ability to everyone’s satisfaction while also staking out at least minimum positions (good or bad, weak or strong, informed or not) on a wide range of issues. At that point, I trust the media will begin giving her the kind of relatively detached, let the viewers judge for themselves interviews they give other politicians.

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