Harlow was having none of it. “You speak for the president so we’re going to stick on that topic. . . . How much federal income tax did the president pay in 2016 and 2017?”
Morgenstern called the Times story a “smear.” But he refused to get specific about his claim that Trump had paid “millions” in taxes and kept bringing up Hunter Biden. Harlow kept pushing and chiding (“I’m asking the questions here”), and when he accused the Times of writing the story in coordination with Democrats as a “political hit,” she laid down the law. “Brian,” she demanded, “stop doing that, or this interview will end. Stop attacking the press.”
The 10-minute run-in quickly trended on Twitter and blossomed like dandelions across Facebook feeds. CNN clipped and posted it on its website. Suddenly, Harlow was the journalism hero of the day — or at least until another of her colleagues would have the chance to make another Trump spokesperson squirm on live television.
In the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the spokesman-and-surrogate smackdown has become a popular cable-news ritual. Once reluctant to brand transparently false statements as lies, or betray frustration with their interview subjects, even the most traditionally neutral anchors now seem eager to join the fray — or perhaps compelled into it by the slippery interview stylings of the Trump White House and campaign staff.
On Sunday, it was CNN’s Jake Tapper taking on Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who admitted: “We’re not going to control the pandemic.” (“Why aren’t we going to get control of the pandemic?” asked Tapper). Last week, it was MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson cutting short campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley’s claims of widespread voter fraud and evasions on another question (“Nope, okay, I guess there’s no answer to that question,” Jackson said when Gidley ducked). In August, it was CNN’s Erin Burnett challenging presidential adviser Peter Navarro on his dubious claims about the healing power of hydroxychloroquine (“You’re an economist, not a scientist,” she said). A month earlier, another CNN host, Brianna Keilar, dueled with Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh (after Murtaugh told her repeatedly to “hold on a second,” Keilar responded, “I can’t hold on a second when you’re not being honest”). An earlier Keilar-Murtaugh interview resulted in Murtaugh excusing Trump’s comments about asking underlings to “slow [coronavirus] testing down” as a joke and Keilar pushing back: “120,000 dead Americans, millions unemployed. . . . Do you think that’s funny?”
A good smackdown gives a TV journalist a chance to look tough and skeptical and in command of the facts, while giving left-of-center viewers the enjoyable catharsis of watching a prevaricating Trump surrogate fighting against inconvenient facts.
For many, the approach is long overdue.
“Given the Trump administration’s record on dissembling, disinformation and attacking the news media, it’s vital for journalists . . . to ask specific questions and follow up when White House officials dodge them,” says Chris Bury, a veteran ABC News correspondent who is now on the faculty of DePaul University in Chicago.
Sometimes these showdowns generate actual news — as happened Sunday, during Tapper’s interview of Meadows. The two sparred about the coronavirus crisis until Meadows admitted that the Trump administration has no intention of trying to contain the virus.
It helps that Trump and his surrogates have provided so much raw material for aggressive TV interviewers to push back on for the past four years. But the volume of confrontational clips is a relatively new development in the media’s relationship with this White House.
In early 2017, Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the phrase “alternative facts” during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to deflect criticism of the White House’s preposterous claim that Trump had drawn record-breaking inauguration crowds didn’t even draw much of a retort from interviewer Chuck Todd.
Yet tensions were soon sparked in the White House briefing room, where a confrontational style of asking questions emerged, notably from Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent. “I don’t believe reporters are supposed to be the story,” Acosta wrote in his memoir last year, acknowledging his reputation for TV-friendly clashes. “[But] do we absorb Trump’s attacks? Or do we push back and stand up for ourselves?”
Acosta determined that Trump “represented a new kind of president, one that required a different kind of playbook for journalists.” The White House, in turn, accused Acosta of showboating; for a brief period in 2017, then-press secretary Sean Spicer banned live TV and audio of his briefings, reportedly to diminish the impact of these kinds of clashes, and Acosta himself was briefly banned in 2018.
Now, nearly four years into the Trump administration, “there’s a growing feeling among TV journalists that they need to be seen as pushing back,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the school of communication at Hofstra University and a former producer and news executive at NBC and ABC. “You can’t let [an interview subject] dissemble on the air.”
Even Wolf Blitzer, not exactly a bombthrower, got into the act this month when he confronted (and appeared to blame) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for stalled negotiations over a massive pandemic-relief bill. Blitzer’s insistence that Pelosi was being stubborn and inflexible in the negotiations elicited a testy response from her. Which of course propelled the interview to viral glory.
Sometimes, attempts to channel the prosecutorial verve of the late “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace “turn into hot air,” Lukasiewicz added, generating “more heat than light.” Many critics rolled their eyes after Navarro, whose White House role is as an adviser on trade policy, told CNN “New Day” anchor John Berman in one particularly sparky interview that he was qualified to challenge infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci on medical treatment for the coronavirus because “I’m a social scientist” — but continued to get booked on the network again and again.
“I’ve never understood the point of shows where a network invites world-champion liars onto its air,” commentator David Frum, an editor for the Atlantic, recently tweeted, “and then the host righteously denounces them for world-champion lying.”
In fairness, networks often have little choice. Obliged to offer the Trump Team’s point of view, they are often stuck interviewing the White House’s or the campaign’s appointed representative — some of whom have lackluster credibility with journalists.
Before Tapper interviewed Trump campaign surrogate Lara Trump last week — an exchange that he cut off early after the two repeatedly talked over each other — he made it clear to viewers that the presidential daughter-in-law was far from his first choice for a discussion about the coronavirus. “We requested members of the [coronavirus] task force, including Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, the HHS secretary, the CDC director, the head of NIH, the head of the FDA, the president’s doctor, or the chief of staff, the national security adviser, the White House communications director, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, the secretaries of state or treasury or defense, and so on,” he began. “The White House declined to make anyone from the Trump administration available.”
CNN’s representatives declined to comment.
Do these high-pitched interviews also make for good journalism? Do they leave viewers better informed — or merely entertained by the gladiatorial spectacle?
The Harlow-Morgenstern interview, for example, gave viewers little new information, Bury says, but it left an indelible impression — that of a representative of the Trump White House ducking an important question about Trump. “In this case, the segment was long enough for viewers to see the dance play out,” he said.
Yet these conflict-laden interviews may also be immeasurably corrosive and be fuel for the partisan divide, says Tom Bettag, the much-decorated executive producer of Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” who is now part of the University of Maryland’s journalism faculty.
“People watch train wrecks,” Bettag said. “People watch food fights. People pass conspiracy theories on Facebook. People follow Trump tweets with a certain oh-my-God fascination. But that has nothing to do with good journalism. It has nothing to do with serving the purposes of democracy.”