Steve Kroft's Softball Obama Interviews Diminish '60 Minutes'

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All 14 questions the award-winning correspondent posed in his recent sit-down were glaringly flawed. Even Jon Stewart is more hard-hitting.

Steve corft and friends 60 minutes.png
CBSNews.com

On 60 Minutes, the news-magazine show that prides itself on "hard-hitting" investigations and interviews, correspondent Steve Kroft, who has won most of the highest awards in his industry, has just broadcast another softball interview with the most powerful man in the world, a performance that ought to earn him a rebuke from his peers in the news business but almost certainly won't. His CBS bio page proudly touts his unparalleled access to President Obama: He scored the first post-election sit down after Election 2008, another exclusive following the killing of Osama bin Laden, and a third sit-down as the president kicked off his reelection campaign.

Little wonder that Obama keeps going back. The 60 Minutes brand is associated with probing interviews, and Kroft is adept at using his tone and manner to create the impression of tough questions without actually asking any. For Sunday's interview, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sat beside him, benefited from 60 Minutes gravitas while answering questions better suited to Ellen. It hardly matters whether Kroft is deliberately pulling his punches to secure ongoing access or is simply disinclined to fulfill the core journalistic duty of holding powerful people accountable for their actions; his Obama interviews ought to diminish his standing and the reputation of his employer.     

Lest you think I am being too hard on Kroft, here are all of the questions broadcast from his Obama-Clinton interview:

  • "This is very improbable. This is not an interview I ever expected to be doing. But I understand, Mr. President, this was your idea. Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?"
  • "There's no political tea leaves to be read here?"

  • "It's no secret that your aides cautioned you against -- actually were against you offering Secretary Clinton this job. And you were just as determined not to take it. And you avoided taking her phone calls for awhile because you were afraid she was going to say no. Why were you so insistent about wanting her to be secretary of state?"
  • "You've been quoted as thinking or telling people that there was no way you were going to take this job and you weren't going to let anybody talk you into it. What did he say that night that made you [change your mind]?"
  • "What did he promise you? And has he kept the promises?"

So far, that's five questions, all of them easy, concerning events that happened four years ago, and focus on the interpersonal drama of those events. They elicited no new information, and were highly unlikely to elicit anything of substance. Did Kroft imagine for a moment that he'd get an honest answer to a question like, "What did Obama promise you when you agreed to be secretary of state?" I'd call it amateur hour if I thought it was asked out of naivete, but Kroft is not naive.

His next four questions: 

  • "Has she had much influence in this administration?"
  • "How would you characterize your relationship right now?"
  • "It's one thing to have disagreements between cabinet people. I spent time with both of you in the 2008 campaign. That was a very tough, bitter race. And I'm going to spare you reading some of the things that you said about each other during that campaign. But how long did it take you to get over that? And when did it happen?"
  • "You said the staff took a little longer to ignore, to forget the campaign stuff. What about the spouses? Is that an impertinent question?" 

These are the two most influential foreign-policy officials in the United States. In the last four years they've presided over hugely consequential policies all over the planet, much of it cloaked in secrecy. How much influence has she had? Are you kidding me? I love that he subsequently asks not "What's the reality of your relationship?" but "How would you characterize your relationship?" And the reflexive deference is embarrassing. Do journalists now go out of their way to "spare" their subjects the discomfort of confronting seeming contradictions in their rhetoric? Must even inane questions about spousal feelings be softened with apologetic ticks like, "Is that an impertinent question?" No, Kroft, it's just an irrelevant question in a world where we know that Bill Clinton has already campaigned hard for Obama's reelection. 

Up next:

This administration, I mean, you've generally gotten high marks. You've generally gotten very high marks, particularly from the voters for your handling of foreign policy. But there's no big, singular achievement that -- in the first four years -- that you can put your names on. What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign policy success, of the first term?

That's the quintessential Kroft question. Fawning praise, followed by an observation that seems as if it's a transition to a tough question, but actually segues to, So, what's the best thing you've done? 

Then Kroft deftly asks a probing question about the costs of focusing so much of our foreign policy attention on the Middle East and North Africa at a time when historic rivals like China and Russia -- ha, just kidding. His next question actually just obsessed about the politics of Election 2016:

What's the, I have to ask you, what's the date of expiration on this endorsement? No, no, I have to ask that question. I mean, come on. You're -- I mean, you're sitting here together. Everybody in town is talking about it already and the inter -- and this is -- it's taking place.

Lucky he asked. If there's one thing that benefited voters and democracy in the 2012 cycle it's the speculative questions about political alliances that the political press preemptively asked circa 2009.  

You'd think the next subject, the Libya hearings, would be fertile ground for a tough question. Here's how Kroft kicked it off:

I want to talk about the hearings this week. You had a very long day. Also, how is your health?

That's a dozen questions so far with the president of the United States and the secretary of state. The interview that 60 Minutes broadcast included 14 total questions. Thankfully, the last two questions were tougher than everything that came before them, though you shouldn't expect too much.

Here's question 13:

You said during the hearings, I mean, you've accepted responsibility. You've accepted the very critical findings of Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering. As the New York Times put it, you accepted responsibility, but not blame. Do you feel guilty in any way, in- at a personal level? Do you blame yourself that you didn't know or that you should have known?

In other words, Some other people pressed you in a way I haven't to grapple with your responsibility for events abroad. I'll now repeat your answer to them and ask how you feel about it. I won't ask you, "Should you have known diplomatic staff was in danger?" or "Why didn't you know more?" I'll ask, "Do you blame yourself?" for whatever it is that you knew or didn't know. 

Finally, question 14:

The biggest criticism of this team in the U.S. foreign policy from your political opposition has been what they say is an abdication of the United States on the world stage, sort of a reluctance to become involved in another entanglement, an unwillingness or what seems/appears to be an unwillingness to gauge big issues.

Syria, for example.

So there you have it.

Exactly one question attempted to challenge an Obama decision and hold him accountable for it, and for what was he being held accountable? Failing to start another war or foreign entanglement! Note that the Obama Administration surged troops into Afghanistan, carried out the Bin Laden raid, was complicit in the Stuxnet attack on Iran, violated the War Powers Resolution when unilaterally deciding to participate in the war on Libya, is presently planning for a new drone base in Northwest Africa, and wages regular drone strikes in at least four countries. The premise that Obama is abdicating America's role on the world stage or is reluctant to initiate new foreign entanglements is factually inaccurate, no matter how many Republicans say it. 

Judged journalistically, Kroft's interview was an embarrassing failure. It neither uncovered important new information nor added to the public understanding. It was nevertheless an interview that Kroft is almost certain to tout. Among broadcast journalists, landing an interview with the president is itself considered an achievement, even when the reason the interview was granted is inseparable from its poor quality. As a point of contrast to how 60 Minutes handled Obama, let's now look at some of the questions Jon Stewart asked when Obama was on Comedy Central:

  • On his bad performance in a presidential debate: "What happened? What -- did you feel -- did you -- here's what happens to me sometimes, sometimes I'll go on stage and I'll have let's say an open-faced turkey sandwich and a shot of NyQuil. Did you sense -- were you take aback by the reaction to it? Did you sense this wasn't going as well as perhaps you would like it to? What happened?
  • "Before when you ran, you -- you had certain things that you thought -- I wonder if four years as president has in any way changed that? OK, first one is, we don't have to trade our values and ideals for our security? You still feel that way?"
  • "As it ratchets down, I think people have been surprised to see the strength of the Bush era, warrantless wiretapping laws and those types of things, not also be lessened. That the -- the strictures that he put in place that people might have thought were government over-reaching, and that maybe they had a mind that -- that you would perhaps tone down, you haven't?"
  • "Governor Romney said you never called what happened in Benghazi a terrorist attack. You said check the transcripts. Candy Crowley said, he did call it that. But also said, the larger point, there was confusion within the administration over what happened. Why? What -- what was it that caused that confusion?"

I am certainly not suggesting that Stewart is a tough interviewer when he talks to Obama -- just that he is much, much tougher than Kroft, far more inclined to unapologetically challenge him, and much more adept at driving toward substantive information. There's something deeply wrong with American journalism when the host of a half-hour comedy show with a left-leaning audience easily outperforms an award-winning 60 Minutes correspondent. 

In the aftermath of the CBS interview, various right-leaning pundits cited it as an example of the liberal press going easy on prominent Democrats. It's difficult to say what Kroft is thinking. Plenty of prominent American journalists have a bias toward treating people in power deferentially, the one semi-challenge to Obama was grounded in a neoconservative premise, and there are certainly lots of left-leaning critiques of the president that a true liberal might voice. I searched without success for a Kroft interview with George W. Bush as a point of comparison.

But I did find a 60 Minutes interview with George W. Bush. Here are the questions Scott Pelley asked him:

  • "The war on terror, in a sense, began in this room, began in this cabin where your Cabinet meeting was held. Back then the whole country was with you. And now you seem to have lost them. Why do you think so?"
  • "Most Americans at this point in time don't believe in this war in Iraq. They want you to get us out of there."
  • "But wasn't it your administration that created the instability in Iraq?"
  • "It's much more unstable now, Mr. President."
  • "You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?"
  • "Fair to say there are not enough American troops on the ground to provide security for Iraq?"
  • "Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job?"
  • "You are gambling a lot, Mr. President, on the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Why do you think that's a gamble worth making?"
  • "I was on the battlefield in Najaf when al-Sadr's people killed your United States Marines."
  • "Do you believe that the House has the constitutional authority to prevent you from the troop build-up? Can they stop you?"
  • "Do you believe as commander-in-chief you have the authority to put the troops in there no matter what the Congress wants to do?"
  • "You know better than I do that many Americans feel that your administration has not been straight with the country, has not been honest. To those people you say what? Like the weapons of mass destruction? No credible connection between 9/11 and Iraq."
  • "The Office of Management and Budget said this war would cost somewhere between $50 billion and $60 billion and now we're over 400."
  • "When was it that you first found out or it dawned on you that, indeed, there were no weapons of mass destruction? And I wonder, did you think, 'What have I done?'"
  • "What should the American people look for in this war plan? When will they know whether it's working or not?"
  • "What would you say right now in this interview to the Iranian president about the meddling in Iraq?"
  • "I wonder if you feel like you've been ill-served by your Cabinet members, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, perhaps even Vice-President Dick Cheney. Wrong on WMD. Wrong on the connection between 9/11 and Iraq. And now you're in a fix. And I wonder if you look back and wonder who let you down."
  • "The vice president suggested there was a connection, not necessarily 9/11, but certainly to al-Qaeda."
  • "Final question. How can you escalate the war when so many people in this country seem to be against it?"

A stunning contrast, isn't it? I won't speculate about personal ideological bias. It's possible that Pelley is just a much better journalist than Kroft. I will say that there is a glaring double standard in the coverage that 60 Minutes has afforded the two presidents, and that the tough coverage of President Bush was entirely appropriate. In fairness to 60 Minutes, they are hardly alone in giving Obama a pass even on issues that would've gotten Bush excoriated.

There isn't anything I can do about the appetite of the American public for softball interviews with Obama, or the dubious convention of granting accolades for mere interviews with the president, regardless of their content. What I can do is encourage every entity that grants journalistic accolades to remember Kroft's obsequious questions the next time they think of bestowing upon him some lofty award that would immediately be diminished upon his receipt of it. Due to his shameful willingness to conduct fluff interviews, journalists who'd ask Obama tougher questions never get the chance, and the public is less informed than it would otherwise be. 

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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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