Howell Raines hit out at Fox News for ruining political debate. But it's not just Fox. 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.