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.

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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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