On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Rep. Michele Bachmann an unusual question: "The rap on you in Washington is that you have a history of questionable statements -- some would say gaffes," he said, mentioning her assertion that some members of Congress are anti-American and her claim that NATO airstrikes have killed up to 30,000 civilians. "Are you a flake?"
Certain bloggers took offense. Said William A. Jacobson at Legal Insurrection, "If any of you thought that Fox News was a sufficient counterweight to the liberal mainstream media, think again." The uproar proved intense enough that Wallace posted a video apology online. "She seemed a little perturbed," he said, "but I think gave a good, strong answer. In any case, a lot of you were upset... and thought that I had been rude to her. But since in the end it's really all about the answers and not about the questions, I messed up. I'm sorry. I didn't mean any disrespect."
That ought to suffice for the conservative bloggers. But it seems to me that Wallace owes an apology to a different constituency too: Americans who aren't sure how we'll be voting in the 2012 primaries or the general election, and count on TV journalists to pose tough questions to candidates.
In fairness, the bulk of his interview was strong.
But the controversial segment was weak. Disrespectful or not, "Are you a flake?" is a question I'd call amateurish if so many broadcast journalists didn't habitually mistake faux-confrontation for toughness. Disrespectful or not, it is a softball question, because the answer is, "I am most certainly not -- here is a list of my accomplishments that I've rehearsed hundreds of times in my life."
How could Wallace have done better?
For starters, he could've refined his terminology. Making "questionable statements" is unnecessarily vague. The problem with some of Bachmann's statements is that they are factually inaccurate, intemperate, or both. And a flake is someone who commits to something but doesn't follow through. That isn't the knock against Bachmann. Her critics think that she's a right-wing nut job. Or else that she plays one on television to pander to the Tea Party base. Then there's the first example Wallace chose. Bachmann's remark about civilian casualties in Libya is the sort of forgivable misstatement people make all the time during off-the-cuff interviews.
And he knows it.
His other example -- the time Bachmann suggested that the media should launch an investigation into anti-Americans in Congress -- does exemplify some of Bachmann's flaws. Alas, she isn't forced to explain herself, because Wallace, having ended the question with "are you a flake," thinks it's a "strong answer" when Bachmann replies that she is an accomplished attorney. An appropriate followup would've been, "So why did you imply that your colleagues are anti-American?"
Better yet, he could've asked a question about a Bachmann statement that combines factual inaccuracy, provocation, and either shamelessly pandering or actually having no idea what she's talking about. The prepared remarks she gave about carbon dioxide on the House floor are an apt example: