Journalism as Sadism

Garance Franke-Ruta reports from Iowa on the Village's field trip: "The joke last night at the Hotel Fort Des Moines bar is that the last thing you want to do the morning after a potentially-momentum generating speech is go on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, because he’s such a tough questioner." The level of respect most political journalists have for Russert is hard to overstate, as is the extent to which I find it difficult to respect people who respect Russert.

The crux of the matter is this reputation for being a "tough questioner" and the notion that Russert's brand of toughness is worthy of emulation. And it's true that Russert is a tough questioner. Watch any Russert-moderated debate or a typical candidate appearance on Meet The Press and you'll see that he goes way out of the way to put the politician in a tough corner -- he'll ask about some unimportant issue that's politically awkward, he'll drag up a quote from five years ago to try to trip you up, he'll ask about stuff your husband said, he'll harp on whatever recent story has most damaged your candidacy -- he's tough.

But while I wouldn't want to say that "tough questioning" is a bad thing, making toughness the goal is perverse. The goal should be to inform the audience. Climate change, for example, is a hugely important question. As a result, candidates ought to be subjected to questions about their climate change plans. And as it happens, the plans released by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards are all based on good science and good economics. So asking them questions aimed at elucidating their plans shouldn't lead to any embarrassing incidents. Shouldn't, that is, unless the candidates are unprepared to discuss their own plans in an intelligent manner which really would be worth knowing about.

John McCain, by contrast, might or might not end up embarrassed by serious questions about his plan, which moves in the right direction but on a schedule that's too slow and in a way that's too inefficient. Serious questions would give him the opportunity to make the case for half-measures and whether or not he winds up embarrassing himself would turn on whether or not he can give a convincing rationale for what he's doing -- which is at it should be. His Republican counterparts, by contrast, would almost certainly wind up embarrassed by serious questions about their views of climate change since their policies are badly at odds with reality.

Turning back to the Democrats, a serious question about Clinton's biofuels subsidies or Barack Obama's past support of coal gasification schemes might prompt some embarrassment and would be worth asking. But it would be bizarre to jump initially to these topics since they're less important than the more general issue of carbon caps and auctioned permits and voters deserve to hear about the important issues. But Russert wouldn't do it that it. It wouldn't be "tough" to provide politicians with an opportunity to explain their plans. Rather, the "tough" thing to do would be to leap straight ahead to whatever question is most likely to create problems for the politician irrespective of the importance of the issue. The reason, of course, is that Russert doesn't care -- at all -- about whether or not his actions inform the American electorate. Rather, he cares about creating a "news-making" event -- likely something embarrassing for the politician -- and about burnishing his reputation for toughness. He attracts a circle of admirers who share his perverse and unethical lack of concern for whether or not his work helps produce an informed public, gobs of less-prominent television journalists seek to emulate his lack of concern with informing the public, print journalists eagerly court opportunities to appear on the non-informative shows hosted by Russert and his emulators, and down the rabbit hole we go.

But he's tough.