A journalistic brouhaha has broken out — one that would never have arisen just a few years ago. Slowly, yet inexorably, a basic journalistic tenet has been weakened…but not destroyed.
At issue: whether NPR showed political bias, arrogance, rudeness or professional stupidity in not agreeing to run an interview with President George Bush if the condition was that Bush was allowed to select the interviewer, who in this case would have been Juan Williams.
Partisans of both sides may not quite agree (when they see an interview conducted by a hostile reporter) but here is a fact of media life:
As any working journalist, editor or journalism professor will attest, news interview subjects are not generally allowed to select the people who will interview them. It is NOT done and for a good reason.
Any news source (including me when I’m on the road and get interviewed) would always love to have a reporter that they know will not just do a good job but be sympathetic to them and their message. That’s human nature.
But it is a FACT that none of the many editors for whom I wrote overseas from India and Spain in the 1970s, and none of the Knight-Ridder editors I worked for in the early 1980s and none of the editors I worked for at Copley Press’ San Diego Union in the 1980s through 1990 would allow a news source to select the person who would write about them.
If someone ever suggested it, the immediate – and probably accurate — reaction would be that Mr. or Ms. X selected Mr. or Ms. Y because they felt they would not be as hard on them and ask them the questions a journalist selected by the news organization would ask in the journalist’s role as a proxy for the public which can’t ask those tough questions itself.
It’s more reliable, and reassuring to put your money and gamble with a stacked deck rather than with a random deck.
What has changed?
When press/White House history is written, the Bush administration will be notable for the way it successfully decided to bypass the mainstream media and all of those pesky reporters who might grill them with extremely tough, perhaps rude, and difficult questions and instead be interviewed by people it considered the “good” new media — such as Fox News. (Just what do you think those conference calls by campaigns to like-minded weblogs are all about?)
It’s notable that Vice President Dick Cheney has probably been interviewed more by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh over the years than by reporters and journalists who don’t spend their other hours of their working day bashing Democrats and boosting the GOP and the White House and urging people to vote Republican.
It came out later that Dick Cheney often picked NBC‘s Tim Russert for A REASON — because he felt his message (read that the talking points he wanted to get across) could be better communicated on Meet The Press than some other shows where perhaps the reporters might be a bit more unwieldy to handle. (In later interviews, Russert seemed to try to correct that impression, which was probably very upsetting to him a journalist).
So the issue is not whether Williams is a bad reporter or writer. He is NOT. And he was reportedly “stunned” that NPR indicated it wanted to pick its own person to interview Bush, not someone whom Bush wanted to interview Bush.
The issue is that the White House wanted to decide who would get to do the interview on NPR.
The sad part about this is that in the end Williams’ interview appeared on Fox News, which is sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy because Williams’ and the White House’s critics on the left will now utter a huge “AHA! We told you so!” A wiser course would have been for Williams to let NPR have someone else do it (after all, Bob Novak created “Crossfire” for CNN and let others become the screaming head stars).
If the White House needed a commentator to do the interview, would it have readily allowed Keith Olbermann to do it? Or Joe Scarborough? One of the 60 Minutes crew? Or progressive talker Ed Schultz? Or even a pure mainstream media anchor such as NBC‘s Brian Williams? Katie Couric, maybe?
The answers is no : the White House would have felt they were too hostile. Juan Williams, it felt, would offer it a better forum…a more comfortable, friendlier one…one in which it could more easily get its viewpoint and outright talking points across.
That’s fine and dandy, but that ain’t really looking for journalism.
It’s looking for P.R.
So perhaps it could have made things a lot easier:
It should have offered to let former White House press secretary Tony Snow do the interview for Snow’s return to Fox.
Then all of the cards — marked and unmarked — would have been on the table.
SOME OTHER COVERAGE AND VIEWS ON THIS ISSUE: