Here was one of the first questions that Seth Meyers, late-night comedian, posed to Kellyanne Conway, pollster and counselor to the president, when she appeared on his show on Tuesday evening:
CNN has a report that the intelligence community briefed both the president and the president-elect with allegations that the Russian government has compromising information on President-Elect Trump—both business information and personal information. I know this just happened. Can you confirm or comment on the fact that the intelligence community has presented this?
The question may have come from a comedian. Its recipient may have been clad in sequins and seated in a plush easy chair. The duo’s exchange might have taken place amid all the glinty aesthetics of late-night comedy. Still: Squint, and it looked an awful lot like journalism.
It wasn’t just Meyers’s request that Conway “confirm or comment” on the CNN report. It was also his deflections of Conway’s own attempts to deflect his queries. It was his question, in response to Conway’s assertion that “nobody has proven” that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, “But shouldn’t we care if the Russians tried to interfere, whether it affected the outcome of the election or not?”
And it was his response, when Conway told him that Trump “has said that he is not aware of that”—the “that” in this case meaning, ostensibly, the briefings that were the subject of the CNN report—that the president-elect’s lack of awareness “concerns me.” It was his further response, when Conway met Meyers’s note about Trump’s apparent lack of curiosity in determining the extent of the Russian involvement in the election with “he was curious enough to figure out America”: “That’s a pivot right there, Kellyanne.” (He added: “And, by the way, no one does it better.”)
That the pair’s exchange would be contentious was, on the one hand, entirely unsurprising. Meyers, first of all, has made no secret of his (progressive) partisanship. His audience was clearly on his side in the engagement. And the questions he asked Conway took on the specificity they did in part because of the interview’s timing: The news of Trump’s being briefed about the compromising information, first reported by CNN, broke right before Late Night taped.
But Meyers also took the stance he did because of the changes that have come to late-night comedy in recent years—and, especially, within the most recent one. Late-night may once have offered an easy way for politicians to connect with people and humanize themselves in the eyes of public, via sax performances, charming discussions of pets, and the like; occasionally, it still does that.
As the lines between “politics” and “everything else” have faded, though, even the late-night couch has doubled, ever more, as a hot seat. Trevor Noah grilled the conservative pundit Tomi Lahren when she appeared on his show late last year. Samantha Bee interviewed Obama. The bookers for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert saw to it that the very first episode of their new series would feature, as Colbert’s guest, then-Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush. That Meyers would end up asking a guest to “confirm or comment” on “allegations” provided by the intelligence community was in that sense not a moment of deviation from the norms of late-night comedy; it was a perfect example of them.
And Meyers himself has also gone out of his way to emphasize the civic responsibilities of late-night comedy. As he put it during his show’s monologue the day after the 2016 presidential election, “Donald Trump made a lot of promises as to what he was going to do over the next four years, and now we get to see if he will, if he can, fulfill them. So I’d just like to make one promise to him: We here at Late Night will be watching you.”
Conway is not Trump; she is, however, a close adviser to him. And she is, furthermore, (in)famously skilled at the Sun Tzu-for-the-age-of-Hardball arts of rhetorical deflection and political spin. Softballs, because of all that—the traditional stuff of the prior age of late-night banter—simply wouldn’t have been appropriate for Meyers’s interview. And while she has been an omnipresence on cable TV—a fact that was mocked recently, and delightfully, by Meyers’s former employer—she has not been a mainstay of the late-night circuit.
All of which added up to this: On Tuesday, Meyers’s viewers—and the many, many people who watched his interview of Conway after the fact, via Twitter and YouTube and media summaries like this one—watched an interview that might as well have taken place on cable news. An interview that attempted to hold Conway—and, by extension, her boss—to account. They were watching, at the same time, one more example of journalism’s expansion into the world of entertainment. And of entertainment’s expansion into journalism.
They are movements that have been, in many ways, inevitable. Journalism, in the U.S., is messy by design. There are no professional guilds, as in law and medicine, that regulate who may, and may not, engage in its practice. There are only a lot of voices—ever more voices—joined by a very loose set of goals and aspirations: that facts matter. That ideas do, too. And that—a less widely shared aspiration, but an animating one nonetheless—democracy demands groups of people who are willing to speak truth to power, whoever, and however, they may be.
Increasingly, those people are entertainers. Comedians are serving, more and more, as political activists. Late-night comedy is becoming, more and more, a place of earnest—and informed—political debate. The lines between journalism and other ways of understanding the world—between media as information and media as entertainment—are vanishing. Whether that will prove to be a beneficial development for American democracy, or the opposite, remains to be seen. But it is, in general, the new state of affairs. So much so that a presidential adviser could settle down into an easy chair and be asked not to share a lighthearted anecdote, but to respond to a CNN report. So much so, as well, that her host, when she tried to deflect his questions, would make a point of calling out her attempts at spin.
“I’m very excited about this,” Meyers told Conway, during the Late Night interview that helped to erase those lines. He added: “And, obviously, I think a lot of the questions I’m asking you will be asked to the president-elect tomorrow.”
The event taking place “tomorrow”? A press conference.
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