The rules changed on network news the other night right before our eyes. Dan Rather and George Bush changed them. In the old days (the day before yesterday), a sort of mutually agreed upon, slightly avuncular politesse was engaged in between interviewer and interviewee, an on-the-air ritual two-step that alarmed no one (open hostilities do alarm, but more about that in a moment). The dance has turned dirty and now has a distinct apache style. Exchanges used to go something like:
"Mr. Presidential Candidate, tell us more about that old DWI charge, and will the fact that your ex-partner is in jail for racketeering have any effect on your campaign, and how are the wife and kids?"
"Well, Jane. You know all that is just hearsay. The wife and kids were fine the last time I saw them, and in my administration we will reduce the deficit, get the homeless back in their homes and the jam on the lower shelf where the little man can get at it." Not a lot of reality, but we got a feel for the candidate.
Dan Rather definitely had an agenda in his interview with presidential candidate George Bush. Rather wanted to prove that Bush has not been telling all he knows about the Iran-contra fiasco. And, indeed, that he has been lying. Bush agreed to a format for the interview that he thought would include a wide range of issues, and not have just a single focus. Bush reacted to what he obviously considered unfair tactics with a time-honored response; he punched back. So the new rules are twofold:
1) An anchor, reporter or journalist (lofty word) can set up or surprise a candidate or anyone else with any material or any format;
2) That reporter had better be prepared to defend himself, his information and his own behavior.
New rules -- tougher, but fair. They will test the premise that confrontation sells and that civility does not. Ratings are as important to anchormen as polls are to candidates. What we saw on CBS was not only a political interview but a bold promotion. It was so successful that we will see more reporters haranguing contenders as an attention-getting technique. And more interviewees deciding they are no longer going to take the punishment demurely. Good theater, good for the nightly news, good for the politician, but is there any value for the viewer?
Are reporters, using Rather-type intensity, helping to enlighten, or are they merely engaging in pyrotechnics for ratings' sake? Do we need to hear one more Gary Hart apology for infidelity or one more repetition from Bush on what he won't tell us that he did tell the president? Could we have instead some boring questions on trade, industrial competition, world markets, racial tensions, education or immigration? I acknowledge that these often eye-glazing-over Q's and A's do not placate the greedy ratings beast, but I cling stubbornly to the belief that it is a reporter's primary, if unglamorous, obligation to obtain information by reasonable methods and not to entertain.
Press and politician have long eyed each other with suspicion. Healthy skepticism benefits us all, but these new rules are going to force us to consider how much "live" confrontation we can stomach. We have traditionally been uncomfortable when, at presidential press conferences, reporters turn truculent. At the same time, we properly expect our press to uncover wrongdoing and probe into misdeeds. It's a fine line and one of democracy's neater tricks.
As for the new rules, we will just have to see in the new gloves-off atmosphere whether the viewer stays on his feet or gets punch drunk. The writer, former publisher of the Washington Journalism Review, is a contributing editor to the magazine.