A week ago, Katie Couric was scolding the media for "enabling" Donald Trump. The former "Today" and "CBS Evening News" anchor was particularly critical of TV networks' willingness to conduct phone interviews with Trump, instead of insisting that he appear on camera.
"I thought it was very difficult to ask him challenging questions on the phone because he was like a bulldozer," Couric, now the global anchor for Yahoo News, told CNN's David Axelrod on his "Axe Files" podcast.
Now Couric is apologizing for making one of her own questions — not to Trump but to gun-rights activists — appear more challenging than it actually was. Couric acknowledged Monday night what the Washington Free Beacon reported on Wednesday — that a documentary she produced and narrated, "Under the Gun," misrepresented her exchange with members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. The film was edited in a way that added an artificial pause between one of Couric's questions and group members' response, which had the effect of making the interview subjects appear stumped. In reality, they answered right away.
Here's a portion of that response:
As executive producer of "Under the Gun," a documentary film that explores the epidemic of gun violence, I take responsibility for a decision that misrepresented an exchange I had with members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). My question to the VCDL regarding the ability of convicted felons and those on the terror watch list to legally obtain a gun was followed by an extended pause, making the participants appear to be speechless.
When I screened an early version of the film with the director, Stephanie Soechtig, I questioned her and the editor about the pause and was told that a "beat" was added for, as she described it, "dramatic effect," to give the audience a moment to consider the question. When VCDL members recently pointed out that they had in fact immediately answered this question, I went back and reviewed it and agree that those eight seconds do not accurately represent their response.
The Erik Wemple Blog has already taken Couric to task for "deceptive editing" — and rightly so. But the deception is even more significant in the context of her Trump coverage critique.
When Couric says the media allowed the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to avoid tough questions, she seems to imply — as others have, too — that if only journalists had pressed Trump harder, they would have exposed his flimsy understanding of political issues. In other words, they would have done what Couric did to Sarah Palin in 2008, when she asked John McCain's running mate which newspapers she reads.
As we've noted before at The Fix, Trump has been asked tough questions on many occasions. And was Palin's self-described "crappy answer" to Couric eight years ago really any worse than Trump telling NBC's Chuck Todd that he gets military advice from "the shows"?
The main difference isn't in the quality of the responses; it's in the fact that Palin has become a punchline while Trump, for reasons that continue to baffle journalists, has managed to survive such gaffes over and over again.
So here's what we're left with: Couric thinks the media needs to be tougher on Trump. The reality is the current level of toughness hasn't dented his campaign. What's the next level of toughness? One could conclude, based on the misleading edit in Couric's gun documentary, that it involves distorting interviews to produce manufactured flubs, in hopes that one of them will accomplish what no organic mistake has done so far.
That's actually not a fair assessment of Couric's journalistic philosophy. We're talking about once instance of bad judgment in a long career. But her bad judgment can only feed suspicions that agenda-driven reporters might take liberties with the truth when it comes to covering Trump. Observe:
Couric's deceptive edit is bad on its own. But in this contentious campaign season, nothing happens in a vacuum. Trump has run against the press as if it were just another political opponent out to misrepresent his statements. Even though "Under the Gun" wasn't about Trump at all, it just strengthened one of his core arguments.