The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media still hasn’t learned to corner Trump’s lackeys

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, center, listens as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows speaks to members of the media after a meeting at the Capitol on Aug. 1. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
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As we draw to a close of President Trump’s first (and last, we hope) term, the mainstream media’s performance in TV interviews has been largely disappointing. (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor). Fox News’s Chris Wallace, who grilled Trump last month, was the rare exception to poorly phrased questions and lack of follow-up.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted on Sunday that the $600 per week in supplemental unemployment insurance disincentivized people to look for work. ABC News’s Martha Raddatz came prepared, but ultimately Mnuchin skated by:

RADDATZ: So — so you do think it is a disincentive to find a job if you have that extra $600?
MNUCHIN: There’s no question in certain cases where we’re paying people more to work — stay home than to work. That’s created issues in the entire economy.
But let me just say, you have to look at all these things —
RADDATZ: I want to — I want to interrupt you there for just one second. You — it’s not all the evidence. A Yale study from this month refutes that, saying many economists who have studied the benefits said that so far they don’t see any evidence in labor market data that the payments are affecting at which people are returning to work during the pandemic.
MNUCHIN: Well, let me just say, I went to Yale.
RADDATZ: I know that.
MNUCHIN: I agree on certain things. I don’t always agree. There’s a [University of Chicago] study that goes through all the people that are overpaid.

The moment cried out for more pointed questions: Did the Chicago study show an actual disincentive to work? (Hint: No.) Here is a multimillionaire telling us that the head of a family scraping by on, say, $900 a week in state and federal benefits is overpaid. Is someone collecting that amount really making too much money?

Deborah Birx, response coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, admits we are in a much worse position now than in March and April. Isn’t this Trump’s fault? We did not get a chance to hear the answer to the question on everyone’s mind in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday:

BASH: So, Dr. Birx, you’re explaining what happened. The question that everybody out there has is, why? Why did this happen? Why was the government, particularly — I mean, you’re the coordinator for the federal response. Why weren’t you able to — to stop this from spreading and continuing to spread uncontrollably, as it is now?
BIRX: So, what I have learned in working with epidemics around the globe is, you have to really get down to the level of where the epidemic is. ... I can tell you, across America right now, people are on the move. And so all of our discussions about social distancing and decreasing gatherings to under 10, as I traveled around the country, I saw all of America moving. ...
BASH: Dr. Birx, before we move on to some specifics, I just want to really try to get a handle on this, because what I'm trying to express to you, which is something that I know that you're hearing, people are panicked. People are worried. People don't understand why this is seeming to be completely out of control.
Johns Hopkins University said — quote — this week: “The United States is not currently on course to get control of the epidemic. It’s time to reset.” A couple of other medical agencies, associations said similar.
So, is it time for the federal government to reset?
BIRX: Well, I think the federal government reset about five to six weeks ago, when we saw this starting to happen across the South.

Really, we reset?

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Administration figures routinely make unsubstantiated claims that voting by mail is open to massive fraud. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” did exactly that on Sunday, attempting to make the spurious distinction between absentee ballots and voting by mail. Every interviewer has an obligation to zero in on a disingenuous charge aimed to discredit the election.

In every interview, it is essential to pin down the president or his representative and force them to answer questions such as these:

  • The death rate and infection rate are soaring. Why does the president falsely say there are merely "hot spots” and continue to make the repeatedly debunked claim that we have more cases because we test more?
  • Administration officials repeatedly have said the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is not a remedy for the coronavirus. (Administration testing chief Brett Giroir said it again on Sunday). Why does the president continue to hawk an ineffective and possibly dangerous remedy?
  • Trump urged states to reopen early, and now many of them are experiencing the worst surges, as Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has said. Was it wrong to goad states this way? Did Trump endanger Americans?
  • Explain the difference between absentee voting, in use at least since the Civil War, and voting by mail. There is zero evidence that voting by mail is an invitation to fraud. Why does the president keep saying this?
  • How can you call a wrecked economy and more than 150,000 dead Americans a “success”?

When he or she hedges and deflects, the interviewer has to point out that the Trump official or right-wing sycophant is not responding. Ask it a second time — or a third. Letting the administration flacks off the hook to race to another topic (where the interviewer does not pin the official down either) does a disservice to the American people.

There are some skilled interviewers out there in addition to Wallace. ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in June 2019 did an expert job pinning down Trump on his willingness to use foreign help to win an election. CNN’s Jake Tapper routinely corners administration officials and members of Congress. Other interviewers must be willing to create awkward and uncomfortable exchanges; it is not their job to put the guest at ease. They should not care if the guest refuses to return. Interviewers’ job is to get at the truth and expose those concealing it. So far, few have mastered the task.

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