How Fox News Bungled Its Michele Bachmann Interview

"Are you a flake?" Chris Wallace asked -- a question that obscured what's actually wrong with the congresswoman's rhetoric



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:
 


Wallace might've played that clip, and said something like, "Your critics cite this speech as proof that your public statements are sometimes grounded in faulty logic, and betray a poor understanding of certain issues. So let's talk about it. Do you believe that just because a substance is naturally occurring, it won't affect the environment in ways that harm humans? Will you acknowledge that numerous scientists have in fact produced studies that assert it is harmful to increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere? Do you understand what these people mean when they call carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas? Can you explain it to me?" One needn't favor cap and trade to see that Bachmann is opposing it with rhetoric that is illogical, misinformed on certain points, and apparently ignorant of the actual arguments on the other side.

I won't speculate about why Wallace asked a worthless question about flakiness, or why he failed to ask any number of questions that would've been tougher and more relevant to the choice that voters face. As noted, he actually did a good job pressing Bachmann for most of the interview.

But if conservatives are going to get upset at the interview's shortcomings, the fact that it arguably disrespected the candidate is a distraction. The last thing the right needs, now that its primary candidates are vetted largely on talk radio and Fox News, are interviewers even more neutered than they already are. Bachmann has made lots of statements that are factually and logically suspect. Wallace didn't do a very good job questioning her about them. But someone should.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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