Off Message April 2007

Trading Places

Not so long ago, when a journalist interviewed a presidential candidate, the news was about what the politican said. But as the flap over Katic Couric shows, the old rules no longer apply.

Before the moment gets away from us, let's recap. John and Elizabeth Edwards announce that Elizabeth's cancer is back, but say that the campaign will go on. Next thing you know, everyone is talking about—Katie Couric. Not just talking, but obsessing and all but calling for her head.

The anti-Katie uproar was so massive on the Internet, a CBS News blog called Couric & Co. stepped in to say that the Edwardses were actually in the room with Couric, in case we had forgotten: "Reading over some of the comments on Katie's interview with John and Elizabeth Edwards, you can't help but be struck by a recurring theme: Viewers didn't like the questions and how they were asked. You would think that Katie was the only one doing any talking."

The point of the blog post was that the Edwardses' answers had been quite revealing, an argument that didn't fly with many readers. "SHAME on you Katie Couric what a hatchet job you did," one named "Cindiland" railed in a posted comment.

Not so long ago, when a journalist interviewed a presidential candidate, the news—and any ensuring uproar—was about what the politician said. Journalists in general, and network TV people in particular, wore the white hats. They seemed sane and real, and basically on our side. By contrast, the politicians they covered were, by and large, gasbags and hypocrites.

In 1992, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Bill and Hillary Clinton in which Bill was asked whether he had had an extramarital affair, which he unconvincingly denied. The interview became famous, and remains so today, because of what the Clintons said, especially Hillary's indignant: "I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette."

True, there was plenty of grumbling about the aggressiveness of that interview. But the after-coverage did not revolve around the verbal tics, facial expressions, and dark cosmic meaning of Steve Kroft, the reporter who conducted the interview.

The day after the Couric-Edwards chat, The Drudge Report was headlining, "COURIC'S CANCER GRILLING." And you could go to scads of Web sites to hear or watch montages just of Couric's questions, a number of which used some variation of the phrase "some people," as in "Some have suggested that you're capitalizing on this." Many read these as journalistic weasel words. Nora Ephron posted a wicked squib on this theme on The Huffington Post, and it was widely linked and pasted. Couric had her defenders, but they were a minority.

There's a reversal happening here. The politicians now seem relatively sane and well-adjusted, while the media people come off as needy egomaniacs. If the 2008 campaign were a stage play, somebody would be announcing: "The roles formerly played by Cronkite, Brinkley, and Jennings will be played by McCain, Giuliani, and Edwards. Richard Nixon will be played by Katie Couric."

OK, it's not that bad. But the atmosphere around Couric has turned poisonous. For a while, as her ratings surfed the bottom, she enjoyed some free-floating sympathy. But now the tone has shifted into the kind of popular animus normally reserved for corrupt public officials.

The Couric situation has become one big hypocrisy watch. Phoniness, remember, is a central motif of the campaign beat. Is Obama too good to be true? Does Giuliani have secret demons? Going into the Edwards interview, the candidate himself was on the watch list. Perhaps the devoted family man was really just a career-mad monster, a Svengali who would pursue the presidency at any cost to his loved ones.

But both Edwardses came off as utterly real and admirable, while Couric seemed the hypocrite in two ways: 1) Style. The hard-guy Mike Wallace shtick just isn't her, and 2) Substance. After her husband was diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s, Couric gamely forged on with her career. In short, she had been exactly where the Edwardses are now. This highly relevant fact was on every alert viewer's mind, yet she didn't even allude to it. Thus, as Paul Brownfield wrote in the Los Angeles Times, her effort "collapsed under the weight of the interview's essential lie."

What next? A finger-wagging denial? "Mistake were made"? Stay tuned. Our long national nightmare continues.

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