First Person Singular:


(Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan)
August 27, 2013

Most interviews that I do are not super aggressive. They can’t be, and they shouldn’t be; that would get pretty tiresome. So when there’s an interview that’s tough or a question that’s tough, it’s something that raises eyebrows. It’s not easy to do that in the White House briefing room, at a press conference. That’s never easy. It’s not fun. Because as humans we are built to try to avoid conflict. Society constantly looks down its nose at conflict, even if the media doesn’t. And it’s not a comfortable feeling. It’s absolutely nerve-racking. It’s much easier to be chummy with people in power. It’s much easier to ask softball questions, to not upset the apple cart. And that’s why most people, including me, don’t spend all of their time asking tough questions. But there are times when they are called for, and I think definitely they’re needed in politics, in political journalism.

I think the best politicians are the ones that rise to the challenge of answering those questions. And then after the interview, if it’s a tough interview, the best politicians will say, “That’s your job, and I appreciate you asking the questions” — if they are relevant questions. I interviewed [Eliot] Spitzer yesterday. It’s not often that a politician faces a question like, “When was the last time you slept with a prostitute?” which was basically what I was asking him in a PG-13 way. He didn’t get petulant. He didn’t walk off. He didn’t resent the questions. He got it. He understood it, and he answered it. I said at the end of the interview, on camera, that I appreciated him answering the questions. And at the end of the day, there’s a service in facing tough questions. It means that voters have an answer. If they’re addressed, they can move on to other topics. The next time somebody asks him any of the questions I asked him, he now can say, “I’ve already answered this question.”

I’d like to think that people on both the left and the right think that I’m fair. The media keeps evolving in this way, where television channels and anchors and reporters pick sides. And that’s not healthy. One of the problems with the media landscape today is that there is a reluctance to get people who will ask tough questions even if they are fair, even if they are smart and serious and substantive questions. That’s why certain politicians from certain parties favor certain channels or reporters.

Believe me, there is nothing wrong with partisan journalism. That’s how journalism started; I’m not criticizing it for existing — it should exist. The issue is when it’s presented as, These are just the facts. That blurring of opinion and more factual journalism that doesn’t pick sides. It can be challenging if you are not in the business of reaffirming the worldview of more ideological viewers. But I think there is an audience of viewers and journalists and politicians who respect the need for anchors who you don’t know who they voted for for president.

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