i have a video that i like to indulge myself with on occasion. it helps remind me not only that incidents of real television journalism are still technically possible under the present administration but also that incidents of real television journalism have in fact occurred.
too often on today's talking heads programs are guests allowed to distort, obfuscate, propagandize and outright lie without any meaningful challenge from the host. often the simplest follow-up question would suffice.
in this video, a too-rare instance of how real interviews should be conducted, secretary of defense donald rumsfeld makes an appearance on march 14, 2004 with new york times columnist thomas friedman on cbs' face the nation, hosted by bob schieffer.
the interview proceeds unremarkably until schieffer brings up the administration's claims that iraq posed an "immediate threat" to the nation — a threat that of course proved spectacularly hollow when no wmds were found.
rumsfeld then not only flatly denies that the white house had ever made any such claims but also blithely accuses his critics of spreading "folklore" and smugly invites schieffer to produce evidence of any of such statements from the white house. clearly this is a man who knows that he is not about to be challenged.
boy, was he wrong!
friedman: we have one here. it says "some have argued that the nu-" — this is you speaking — "that the nuclear threat from iraq is not imminent, that saddam is at least five to seven years away from having nuclear weapons. i would not be so certain."
just the sight of rumsfeld's crag collapsing like cheap plaster is well worth the price of admission. but little did rummy know that friedman was just warming up.
just as rumsfeld drifts off into a catatonic ralph kramden stammer, friedman admits that the phrasing is "close" (i.e., "imminent" is not "immediate") — and rummy gladly runs with the bait. the change in his demeanor, his relief at being handed such a welcome exit, is both immediate (no pun intended) and undisguised and is just as quickly replaced with his familiar smirk as he glibly relaxes back into the interview. no harm done — all in good fun, really ...
rumsfeld: i've tried to be precise, and i've tried to be accurate ...
hold on now — i ain't done with you yet, sucka!
friedman: "no terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world and the regime of saddam hussein in iraq."
what more priceless theater than rummy reduced to blubbering incoherence on national television, hoist high on his baldface lies like a prize halibut?
this type of "gotcha!" journalism, however, is very easy to accomplish. statements by officials like rumsfeld are a matter of public record — any research intern could do the work that these over-priced celebrity news personalities are supposed to be doing. so why aren't we seeing more of these public figures being held with their feet to the fire?
the answer, i believe, at least in part, is access. television journalists and their network sponsors (and by extension the media as a whole) know that the continued success of their venue depends on their access to the movers and the shakers. what politician, pundit or priest would risk entering the studio just to run a gauntlet of their own deceit? programs like face the nation would quickly become ghost towns populated by faceless and impotent nth-level bureaucrats.
but would that be so bad — the closing of their precious access to the liars and the spinners — if it also meant that the liars' and the spinners' access to the eyes and ears of the masses were also consequentially closed? after all, access is a two-way street — the liars need these venues for the peddling of their noxious wares as much as, if not more than, their network enablers.
the sad reality, however, is that as long as disreputable networks like fox exist to serve as a ready rostrum for the sultans of spin, other stations will remain at a competitive disadvantage if they desire to both attract powerful guests and maintain any semblance of credibility and responsibility. unfortunately, in the marketplace of ideas, fact is no more valuable than fiction.
rumsfeld: we're dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case. and to the extent people lie, ultimately, they are caught lying and they lose their credibility, and one would think it wouldn't take very long for that to happen dealing with people like this.
— remarks on al qaeda, the taliban and the aljazeera news network, october 28, 2001