As I’ve grown accustomed to watching US television news I’ve found myself repeatedly asking what it is that feels so alien. The preponderance of celebrity news on the Today Show, and the avalanche of advertising is certainly a part of it, but the more I’ve watched, the more I’ve focussed in on one thing: interviewing.
My favourite television interviewers in the UK tend to be people like John Snow, who are sharp enough to respond quickly if an answer doesn’t make sense, irreverent enough to press anyone they come up against, and fond enough of playing devil’s advocate that they’re not worried about appearing partisan.
The contrast really hit me this week when I saw Katie Couric interviewing Colin Powell. It was a nice interview, and Colin comfortably and confidently made his points, drawn out by his host. Which would have been all well and good, had his answers satisfied the questions. With the gravity of the current situation in Iraq becoming clearer by the day, this is not a time for the media to allow any politician to get away with vague or inconsistent statements.
Lest I appear partisan (heavens forbid!) I felt the same way when a few minutes later Matt Lauer interviewed Wesley Clark. He was perhaps a little more forceful, but the interview was far from penetrating.
A useful context to put those observations into appeared with this article from the Guardian, talking of a crisis of confidence in the media following revelations that reporters for both the New York Times and USA Today had fabricated major stories. Hidden within this report is:
Just 8% of journalists believe the media have been too critical of the US government compared with 34% of the general public.
That is something at least, but does rather open the question of why the other 92% of journalists have not done something about it. The article highlights commercial pressures as one key factor, but I rather suspect that there is a fear of appearing partisan at play.
I know that my own approach is laced with irreverence and cynicism, but it seems rather as if the news media is trapped in a position whereby it feels that any criticism is necessarily partisan. In part, that is an unfortunate reality of a two-party system, but in many respects it could be countered by a more serious engagement in every interview, regardless of the subject’s political persuasion. If every politician were subject to the same level of serious critique, surely that wouldn’t be partisan?