Axios’s Jonathan Swan deserves praise for his revealing interview with the intellectually and temperamentally deficient president. Pressed on how he could crow about his handling of the pandemic when a thousand people a day were dying, President Trump replied: “They are dying. That’s true. And you have — it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it." The sight of him shuffling through papers, unable to process unflattering information or respond to questions for which he did not have a stock answer, was sobering if unsurprising. His peevish refusal to recognize the late Rep. John Lewis’s greatness because Lewis did not attend Trump’s inauguration was yet another example of raging narcissism.

However, what is instructive — and disturbing — was the amazement expressed by other media personalities in response. They gawk and applaud as if Swan (like Fox News’s Chris Wallace) did something unprecedented. Instead, Swan — like Wallace — did his job, refusing to be flustered by Trump and eschewing congenial tactics that allow Trump to escape from tough encounters.

I cannot imagine a network anchor displaying the look of incredulity on Swan’s face or retorting “Why can’t I?” when Trump said he couldn’t count coronavirus deaths as a percentage of our population. I cannot envision a cable TV anchor (other than Wallace or CNN’s Jake Tapper) dwelling on a topic for as long as it takes to pin Trump down and refusing to rush off to another topic.

Swan and Wallace expertly displayed their craft, but they (and the reaction of their peers) wound up demonstrating how sadly deficient TV interviewers have been in the Trump era. There are two problems: the personnel hired to do tough, combative interviews and the mindset of too many news outlets.

TV news personalities are hired in part because they are congenial, likable and watchable. They put guests and the audience at ease. They do not allow pregnant pauses. They bail out interviewees who are at a loss for words. This is the wrong skill set for interrogating a president, especially one who is a serial liar. In nearly four years, TV news outlets have not figured this out; some simply threw in the towel and declined to switch to more effective interviewers because their star anchors draw TV viewers.

The TV networks would do better to hire people — lawyers, specifically — who are attack dogs, who do not care about being liked and who do not care if they get “access.” House Intelligence Committee counsel Daniel S. Goldman and Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney and now MSNBC interviewer, know how to prepare a line of questions. (Disclosure: I’m an MSNBC contributor.) They know how to listen to the answer and follow up. They shrug off bluster and body language meant to intimidate them. If the job of the media is to hold those in power accountable and to reveal the truth (not maintain phony balance), this is the kind of person you want grilling administration figures.

That brings us to the larger problems with a good deal of mainstream media coverage: the false supposition that Trump is a rational president whose actions can be analyzed as deliberate policy or political choices; the aversion to describing Trump’s statements accurately (“lie,” “incoherent,” etc.); and the reluctance to give up the false idol of “balance” when one side acts in bad faith. In conducting themselves in this way, mainstream media help prop up Trump, conferring an aura of normality that is not earned. They also let other Republicans off the hook when they should be asking hard questions about their own moral failures. (How can you seriously support someone who blabbers nonsense about coronavirus deaths? Aren’t you embarrassed to defend Trump’s blatant appeals to racism?) And they give cover to right-wing editors, pundits and columnists who concoct elaborate rationalizations and ignore what is in front of their noses — a haphazard, delusional and racist president.

After applauding their colleague Swan, the rest of the TV news universe might engage in some self-reflection. Why have they been so ineffective? Why have they played the false balance game? Do they have the people with the right skill set or have they simply given up asking the hardest questions for the sake of genial entertainment? These are tough but essential questions necessary if we are to have an effective, independent media. Right now, effective inquisitors are islands in a sea of froth and fog.

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