On access journalism and its discontents

On access journalism and its discontents

I've managed to keep a promise to myself for self-care and have stayed off of the Intertubes for most of my vacation. In times like these everyone needs a break, an opportunity to disconnect for a time and gather together inner resources. It's as essential to resistance as all other activities.

But, I'm breaking my fast early to address something which has the Twitterati shaking their heads in disbelief.

Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times conducted an interview with Donald Trump in the dead time between Christmas and New Year's Day. I won't give a blow by blow, as others have done it already. The upshot of the piece is that Trump was allowed to go on a stream-of-consciousness derp river, iterating lie after lie, with no challenge from Schmidt.

Now, many have said that if Mr. Schmidt had challenged the moron-in-chief, he would have walked out of the interview. Of course, this begs the question: since when is this a valid reason to softball an interviewee, especially the putatively most powerful man in the world? Imagine a job interview where the manager is afraid to ask the applicant probing questions because she might walk out. That's not how it works.

What if Trump had walked out? I would argue that that would have had far more news value than his deranged, unchallenged ramblings. "Trump Can't Handle Tough Questions" is far more newsworthy than "Trump Says Russia Inquiry Makes US 'Look Very Bad'". Any 10th grader with a grasp of current events could have told Schmidt that's what Trump would say.

I know, I'm spoiled. I was weaned on the Mike Wallace 60 Minutes, where he would make malefactors squirm under his inquisitions, leading many of them to, yes, walk out of the interview. I'm not saying that a journalist's goal in an interview is to elicit such a reaction. I am saying that it should be his or her goal to take the risk that such a reaction will be the end result of the interview. If a reporter is doing her job, the risk of a walkout by the interviewee should always be on the table; one shouldn't softball questions in the interest of getting to the end of the session with no ruffled feathers.

Access journalism doesn't serve the public interest. What it does serve is, of course, the journalist and the interviewee. The journalist burnishes his credentials; the interviewee gets to spew pabulum unopposed. Even if the Times had published a companion piece to the interview pointing out the various lies, falsifications, and outright delusions emitted by Trump, that would have been better than allowing him to express his id unfettered.

In the Age of Trump, there is a lot of good journalism being conducted. Even, yes, in the Times. But too many journalists insist on treating Trump like a run-of-the-mill politician. He's nothing of the sort. He's Hitler without the strategic thought. He's Mussolini without the gravitas. He is something never seen before in American politics, or at least never having ascended to the highest office in the land. Too many journalists believe that they have to treat Trump like a normal politician. In that decision, they are betraying the people they're supposed to be serving: us, the public. The First Amendment doesn't exist in the abstract. It is there specifically to hold the powerful to account without fear or favor. And it is even more essential when we have an existential threat to the state like Trump in office. Journalists have to get over the idea that they can treat Trump "normally". They can't. He's not normal. The sooner they figure that out, the sooner we'll be able to unwind this regime.

We have too many Chuck Todds. We need a rebirth of Mike Wallaces.



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