Why Is This Bastard Lying To Me?

Ravi Somaiya at Gawker with something I wish so-called “journalists” would read:

Howell Raines hit out at Fox News for ruining political debate. But it’s not justFox. By softballing and coddling interviewees, all of television news has helped politicians get away with appalling lies, distortions and… being Sarah Palin.

Put simply: almost without exception, American political interviewers fawn and simper over their subjects, refuse to ask a question more than once and never call bullshit on blatant bullshit. If anchors, interviewers and White House correspondents did their job — to hold elected officials accountable, by their lapels if necessary — politicians of all stripes could not get away with distorting and outright lying, as they do now.

Rove-ian veneers would simply be scraped away by the eight words ‘that is not true, please answer my question’. Repeated enough on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC they’d mean no birthers. No myths about healthcare or rumors of death panels. No paranoid lies about creeping socialism. No George W. Bush. No Sarah Palin.

Take, for example, Palin’s 2008 claim to ABC‘s Charlie Gibson that because she could “actually see Russia from land here in Alaska,” she had foreign policy experience. Imagine if he’d thrown it directly back to her with follow-up questions. What bearing does this have on your ability to make policy? Are you seriously telling us that your qualifications are based on proximity? I put it to you, Governor Palin, that if you have to rely on such a shabby justification, you are woefully lacking. The resulting stammering and incoherence would have sent her limping back to Wasilla. Instead she was, and is, coddled.

There is a quote passed around in British journalism, which has a more robust tradition. Every interviewer is instructed to ask themselves, when facing a politician, “why is this bastard lying to me?” Jeremy Paxman, a BBC interrogator, once asked a very senior member of the government a question 14 times (video here, skip to about 3.30) simply because he evaded it.

Next time Republican Congressman Eric Cantor is on your TV lying glibly about his party’s “no cost jobs plan,” or a government takeover of healthcare, picture an interviewer like Paxman, with the facts at his or her fingertips, making him eat his falsehoods live on air. Then consider how that might affect the level of honesty in his next appearance.

It is not easy to be confrontational. These are wealthy, powerful, intimidating people who can choose who they talk to. So reporters make an excuse for practicing Hollywood-style access journalism: they claim their job is to ask the questions, air the responses and let the people judge. They are mere conduits.

This, to be frank, is pathetic. Take a look at the dysfunction in DC for evidence. All the stations, from Fox to MSNBC, are doing is validating absurd lies by airing them as news. Politicians should fear, to their very cores, being interviewed by people other than Jon Stewart. We need to stop blaming Fox, and start asking questions. Repeatedly.

I laughed out loud when I read the “why is this bastard lying to me?” line, because that was my exact approach to journalism. Always, no matter who I was talking to. I once made an interviewee so nervous, his coffee cup was rattling in the saucer he held.

Again: this goes back to the idea of “Whose side are you on?” Far too many journalists now consider themselves on the side of the people in the know, the insiders. And the insiders are so damned good at the seduction game. You think it isn’t flattering to some lowly reporter when a politician says, “That’s a great idea, tell me more”? Of course it is.

But then, look at the incentives. If reporters kiss enough ass to become a network anchor, they get the limo and the $10 million a year contracts.

Personally (and believe me, sometimes I wish I wasn’t inflicted with integrity), I couldn’t really live with myself. But clearly, many people can – and do.

5 thoughts on “Why Is This Bastard Lying To Me?

  1. “Far too many journalists now consider themselves on the side of the people in the know, the insiders.”
    This is because they want to be insiders themselves; they want access, they want to be part of the Village and fuck other members of the Village so that they can get inside the Club. They have to appear to be insiders, with insider’s knowledge, to be taken seriously and actually considered for insider status by the insiders the fawn over.
    It’s D.C. culture.

  2. Plus, nobody wants to burn a source, lest they wind up like Eric Massa. When the Village turns on you, it ain’t pretty; you’re DONE.

  3. Up until the 1970’s the money men were old timers who looked down on the press and college intellectuals because they had made their fortunes in the good old fashioned hard work hard knocks school that valued action rather than words.

    Nixon, Agnew, Reagan and their fat cat backers just complained and ignored. A new generation of educated conservatives realized that there was a simple fix: give these people money and they will print and teach whatever you want them too.

    Also poor conservative intellectuals like Gingrich told the rich that if they set up schools and foundations and gave these smart verbal guys jobs, they too would write and promote ideas to make the rich richer.

    It was as simple as that: make the journalists rich but totally dependent just like you do with the politicians and they will do anything to keep you happy.

  4. “But then, look at the incentives. If reporters kiss enough ass to become a network anchor,” as in one Chris Matthews, prominent among many others.

  5. Ravi Somaiya:

    No paranoid lies about creeping socialism. No George W. Bush. No Sarah Palin.

    And on so-called “public option.” And if a Barack Obama, a much chastened one. Those two are down to our career “progressives,” since they of all people should have known better than to, well, “fawn and simper.”

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