In 2007, NPR struck a blow for journalistic independence. It turned down an invitation from the White House to have then-NPR analyst Juan Williams interview George W. Bush. The White House, said then-NPR vice president for news Ellen Weiss, “shouldn’t be selecting the person.” Williams ended up doing the interview for Fox News.
This week, ABC News struck a blow for pageviews and a place in history. It responded to a White House interview invitation to Robin Roberts by sending her to the White House. As The Post’s Paul Farhi reported, “ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said Roberts was chosen by the White House and the president for the interview, which caught Roberts by surprise.”
Conservative media criticism site NewsBusters.org picked right up on the transaction: “ABC Admits Team Obama Picked Robin Roberts Due to Her Race, Age, and Previous (Soft) Interviews.”
Schneider tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “We were very happy that Robin had the opportunity to do this interview.” Emphasis on who sits in front of the president, suggests Schneider, ignores the reality that the entire enterprise gets behind the preparations. “There is a division-wide editorial effort that goes into any big interview that we do and that represents the thinking of the entire news division.” Another consideration: Dickering with the White House in this case may well have launched this exclusive to another network, given how quickly the White House needed to gain closure on the gay marriage issue.
That’s a strong defense. But the question of journalistic integrity here has to be answered by people steeped in the history of broadcast news. On that front, a small and unscientific sampling is a bit split on the question:
Outrageous! Fred Francis worked for NBC News for three decades starting in the mid-1970s. He says, “I can’t think of one situation in any presidency or any White House that I covered — especially working for Tim Russert, where the White House pretty much dictated how it wanted its story.” He continues, “Years ago, ABC would have said no to this. . . . From my own news point of view, shame on the networks for letting the White House dictate who this story goes to. I’ll never be a talking head on ABC, but that’s okay, too.”
Meh. Barbara Cochran is a former news executive for NBC and CBS and now a journalism professor at the University of Missouri (in D.C.). “For the White House to say ‘we’d like to do this,’ who’s going to say no to that, especially when it’s a time when you’d love to ask him [Obama] some questions,” she says.
Things have changed. TV news vet and University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Feldstein notes, “In days of yore, like Walter Cronkite’s famous talk with JFK, it was always the anchormen — and they were always men — who interviewed presidents. That ensured the highest visibility possible for both the network and the chief executive, working to the advantage of both. But with the proliferation of television news outlets, it became a seller’s market and so presidents and other high visibility ‘gets’ can choose their interviewers based on their desired target audience or the anticipated friendliness of the interviewer. Networks that don’t accede risk losing the big interview to a competitor so they usually — happily — comply.”
Judge the product! Greta Van Susteren of Fox News writes in her classic, creatively punctuated fashion: “Those who criticize Robin for getting the interview are simply jealous and / or petty. Period....NO ONE IS ACTUALLY CRITICIZING HER INTERVIEW.”
The trick for TV executives is how to have it both ways: You want to accede to the White House’s request in order to preserve your exclusive. At the same time, you want to hold on to your integrity as a news operation. A proposed solution (suggested by fellow media critic Jack Shafer in a chat on this question): Ask the president why he chose the interviewer. In other words:
ROBIN ROBERTS: Mr. President, why did you choose me to sit before you on this occasion?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: ......
A review of the full transcript doesn’t turn up such a question. Its answer surely would have been as interesting as anything the president said about Mother’s Day or the auto-industry bailout.