By now, there’s a reasonable chance you’ve seen Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto’s interview with Million Student March organizer Keely Mullen. It was all over the Internet in recent days -- and particularly the right-leaning portion of said Internet, which delighted in a liberal college student struggling to explain how giving everyone free college would be paid for.
The exchange was, in a word, uncomfortable.
Cavuto began by giving Mullen the floor to lay out the demands of her group, which orchestrated student walkouts at 110 college campuses last Thursday. They were: free tuition at public universities, the cancellation of all student debt and a $15-per-hour minimum wage for all campus workers. Cavuto then asked Mullen how to pay for all this.
“Um, great question,” Mullen replied.
It was almost instantly apparent that Mullen was in over her head. She seemed flustered and unprepared. She seemed like, well, a kid.
Yet the interview continued for nine excruciating minutes. Cavuto, who had moderated a Republican presidential debate just a few days earlier, would ask a tough question, Mullen would squirm and fumble her way through a response, then they’d do it all over again.
Given the vocal role students are playing in national conversations about racial discrimination and, naturally, college debt, it’s likely that more media encounters such as this one are on the way. Which raises an important question: Should the press cut student activists some slack, recognizing that their reasoning — or, at least, their ability to articulate it — might not have caught up to their passion? Or should news outlets treat students like true activists and like the adults that they technically are, expecting them to hold their own against journalistic pushback?
At Louisiana State University (a school that ought to offer free tuition, according to Million Student March), the student newspaper called Cavuto’s interview “shameful” in an opinion piece Monday.
“His interview style is suitable for a presidential candidate with experience fielding tough questions and a bit more knowledge about how the world works,” wrote Mariah Manuel, a senior majoring in mass communication. “His manner of questioning was not acceptable for an idealistic young college student without a solid grip on the facts.”
Manuel added that Cavuto questioned Mullen in a “condescending tone.”
She’s certainly right that the Cavuto-Mullen pairing was a total mismatch, but wouldn’t it be more condescending for the media to assume that college students can’t handle anything beyond softballs and good-for-yous?
Many students — maybe even most — would have melted on-camera, just like Mullen did. But among any large group of student demonstrators, there are surely natural communicators, mature beyond their years, who can state a case and withstand the follow-ups. Mullen, who we would emphasize volunteered for the interview with Fox, simply wasn't.
Protest organizers and media outlets have a shared responsibility to identify these students and put them out in front. Neither party benefits from an interview like Keely Mullen’s. Students can’t get their message across, and the press can’t do its job, either, which is to find out and report what a protest movement is really all about.
Media professionals should take no pleasure from Mullen’s on-air struggle — and Cavuto didn’t seem to, at least outwardly — but they also shouldn’t drop the hard questions and treat students like children.