Remember Baba Wawa? Gilda Radner’s hilarious character on the original ’70s SNL attested to the fact that Barbara Walters was a trailblazing reporter—the first female evening news anchor. Putting aside her recent interview with Hugo Chavez, she’s been devoting many of her later career days to corn syrup like The View and annual specials on her favorite celebrities. Maybe she needs a little fluff. I don’t blame her: Being a real reporter is far from cake. Last week’s drama over Katie Couric’s interview with John and Elizabeth Edwards showed just that.
Couric asked the Edwardses (on 60 Minutes) why they decided to stay in the race despite the reoccurrence of Ms. Edwards’ cancer. Her questions were attacked by everyone from viewers writing to the CBS web site to people on YouTube, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, andfilmmaker Nora Ephron. They all said Couric insensitively passed judgment on the Edwardses. Maybe so—after all, she did suggest in one of her questions that the Edwardses were putting work before family. But is sensitivity a priority, especially when it can get in the way of the best answers? And do we want anything less than the best answers? While a reporter should not pass personal judgment, getting answers from an interviewee by playing devil’s advocate is nothing new. It’s the kind of pushing that often makes the difference between a good reporter and a great one.
My few years of news reporting and editing (at the Maroon and elsewhere) have allowed me to glimpse what I only imagine as daunting for some personalities among greenhorn reporters: asking hard questions. But as they say: If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. I once wrote an obituary (July 8, 2005, Chicago Sun-Times) on a Chicago woman who had received a failed kidney transplant. The interviewees found the technical details—the health matters leading to her death—less pleasant to discuss than their loved one’s happier days; yet the basic facts are always needed and obviously relevant. Sensitivity and tact matter, but should not hinder communication of the truth. If there’s a pink elephant in the room, a reporter is not only allowed to ask about it—he should. This stands so long as the pink elephant is relevant, and Couric’s questions were. Voters have a right to hear the Edwardses’ response and decide if they seem up to the task of taking on the presidency despite physical challenges. The goal is not to out someone or point the finger, but to communicate the relevant information.
When it comes to public figures like presidential candidates, this credo matters even more for a reporter. Public figures are to reporters as witnesses in a court of law are to lawyers. We all know that in court you can object when opposing counsel brings up irrelevant matters. You have to ask yourself: What’s the story we care about? Does it matter if Little Red Riding Hood stopped to pick up a daisy on her way to see her grandma? While such an irrelevant factor has minor implications, other superfluous information might unnecessarily damage reputations and waste time, as with the ridiculous investigation of President Clinton. The relationship between president and citizen is not the same as the relationship between a man who happens to be president and his spouse. Investigating a president’s personal life is not only pathetic and invasive, but a gloriously inefficient waste of time and money that we can’t afford to repeat. Why? It’s irrelevant. On the other hand, when Woodward and Bernstein investigated Nixon, the relationship between Americans and the President came into play, and thus, the questioning was relevant and necessary on a professional level. John Edwards’s situation obviously differs—his wife’s bout came unexpectedly—but as a political candidate, he even said he understands the relevance of Couric’s questions.
Larry King is a lucky man. He seems like a nice guy, but he might be to CNN what Lindsay Lohan was to Robert Altman’s otherwise delightful Prairie Home Companion. That might be overly harsh, I know, but some of the questions he asks…I mean, he asked wounded journalist Bob Woodruff if he had had any dreams when in a coma. Yet somehow, he’s still around. Maybe it’s the suspenders. But you don’t have to ask dull or dumb questions to interview the biggest names. The LA Times once called Oriana Fallaci “the journalist to whom virtually no world figure would say no.” She interviewed the Ayatollah Khomeini, Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi, and Fellini, to name a few. Yet she didn’t butter up interviewees like Larry, often offending them. This led to some of the most effective transcripts. For example, after she got Kissinger to agree that Vietnam was a “useless war.” The then National Security adviser called it “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.” The day we start going after reporters for provocative questions is the day we choose to live on Candy Mountain.