Politics & Policy

Caution: Objective Journalist at Work

Journalism has forgotten its role as communicator, not campaigner.

It was one of those small moments that brings the big picture into crisp focus: On Monday, August 27, Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts sat down with Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama. The conversation quickly turned to rebuilding New Orleans, a topic near and dear to Roberts’s heart. She calls the region home and has spent a good deal of time covering the Katrina disaster and its aftermath.

#ad#Roberts began by feeding Sen. Obama the perfect opening to share his views on how irresponsibly insurance companies acted in the literal and figurative wake of Katrina. With characteristic aplomb, the candidate enunciated his feelings on the unfairness of “cherry-picking,” and how unconscionable it is for insurers to pile up profits on the backs of suffering Americans. No surprises there. One would expect such arch rhetoric, with its loaded terms and base-mobilizing themes, from a man seeking the White House.

The really troubling part came next. As the candidate finished making the insurance industry sound as if it were run by the Corleone family, concluding that “insurance companies can’t just be a profit-making machine where…when you finally have to pay, you walk away,” the journalist said this:

“But that’s how it’s been. How can you change that?”

And I thought: Is this an interview? Or an infomercial?

Whatever it was, Ms. Roberts’s overall involvement in the presentation and amplification of Sen. Obama’s own talking points constituted a gross breach of journalistic ethics, and this ought to earn her a stern rebuke from ABC News. Consider especially the substance and tenor of the quoted lines above, wherein she offers up a sweeping, unambiguous indictment of the American insurance industry, thereby certifying both Sen. Obama’s position and, of course, the cynical liberal-Democrat line on corporate America as a whole.

Her network hat securely in place, Ms. Roberts told America that the industry is venal, and in need of reform. The only real question in her mind, apparently, was whether a candidate could prevail against the soulless goliath of Big Insurance — what with corruption being so entrenched in the culture of American business. (After all, “that’s how it’s been.”) Indeed, earlier she had asked Sen. Obama whether it was “realistic” for him to expect any cooperation from an industry that has “laid many roadblocks, many people think, in this recovery role.” No doubt that’s her idea of a tough question.

For the sake of journalistic accuracy, this soulless goliath has disbursed over $40 billion in Katrina-related claims. Is that enough? Who’s to say? Were some insureds treated unfairly? I’m sure some were, or think they were. But $40 billion is not quite “walking away,” and an even-handed journalist might have mentioned the figure at least in passing.

More to the point, like the irredeemably bleak coverage of Iraq, the ongoing coverage of Katrina colors public perception of all related news, such that a performance like Roberts’s can slip in under the radar. I would therefore ask liberals to put aside their natural sympathies and think in terms of something we should all value as this presidential season kicks into high gear — honest interviewing.

Consider an analogous scenario that goes the opposite way. Let’s suppose a hard-line right-wing candidate made some remark on Good Morning America about how it’s high time that urban minorities rejected victim-hood once and for all, got off the multigenerational dole and stood on their own two feet. Can you even imagine a network interviewer following up with, “But that’s how it’s been….”? And then a question about whether it was even “realistic” for anyone to expect members of the minority community to be responsible for themselves?

Or let’s suppose Roberts were interviewing President Bush himself. He’s just recited his set piece about staying the course, fighting terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them here, and so on. What are the chances that Roberts’s next question would be, “But Mr. Bush, how can you make the American people see that it’s vitally important for us to prevail in Iraq?” Answer: There is no chance of her asking that question — or any question that seems to affirm Bush’s policy as the correct one. What you’d get instead is some adversarial musing about the legitimacy of the war, the cost of the war, the public’s waning patience with the war. And that’s fine. Adversarial journalism forces people in the public eye to move beyond prepared talking points. Except, it should be that way for popular Democrats, too.

It’s not, of course. Liberal-minded network stars wear their world-views as prominently and unselfconsciously as they wear their custom-tailored clothes. What else could account for Katie Couric’s maddening tendency to invert emphasis and blame — as, for instance, when she asked Sen. Hillary Clinton in November 2004, “Is it disappointing for both you and your husband that his detractors and critics continue to pursue him?” Do you suppose Couric will be asking Alberto Gonzales anytime soon, “Are you disappointed that your partisan critics basically forced you out of your job?” (And let’s not lose sight of which man — Mr. Clinton or Mr. Gonzales — was formally impeached, and turned the White House into a frat house.)

So sure is Couric of her mandate to represent the popular will that she regularly prefaces her left-leaning interview questions with such loaded phrases as “lots of people believe” or “most Americans say…” It just comes naturally to her, and the many others in broadcast who share her politics.

In the overview of its recent report on the status of news media, the Project for Excellence in Journalism wrote, “Journalists see themselves as acting on the public’s behalf. The public believes they are either lying or deluding themselves.” PEJ’s findings were especially hard on crusading broadcast journalists. In Roberts’s case, it may not be irrelevant that she first came to prominence as an ESPN sports jock. Perhaps because of that background, she believes that it’s okay to clap for the home team. Or perhaps, as an acquaintance of mine suggests, she merely got swept along with the tide of Sen. Obama’s estimable rhetorical skill.

Roberts, however, is not some wide-eyed intern, learning the ropes on-the-job. She’s a seasoned network star out on the campaign trail. And she should know better than to get caught up in the moment. Bottom line, Robin Roberts and her many media think-alikes need to accept that their function is communication, not advocacy; interviewing, not cheerleading.

Of course, such imperatives tend to get lost when you’re rooting for your subject to come out of an interview smelling like, well, a rose garden.

— Steve Salerno, whose most recent book is SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, is writing a book about vanity’s role in American life.

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