Most-Trusted Names in TV news are Jokers

By Rob Patterson

The media and the American political landscape are topsy-turvy. We know this. (If you don’t, I have to wonder why you are reading this publication.)

One sign that both have fallen down the rabbit hole into a very strange wonderland is the state of the TV political interview. In principle, it’s the best way for the public to get a true sense of who political figures are. You can see their face and hear their words and look at their face and, if attuned for telltale tics, get the nuance and hints that words on paper cannot provide.

Of course, to get something really good in a video face-to-face interview, one needs a damn good interviewer. It’s an art I know well, having likely done thousands by now. Most of mine are hardly controversial or adversarial — but I have done enough news reporting to know how that works too — and I can say there are a few keys to doing a good one. Establishing a level of mutual respect and trust and having a genuine conversation are two big factors. Being likable and giving the subject a sense that they are likable (even if, to the interviewer, they are not) are also paramount.

And when there’s big stakes, being unafraid to ask the tough questions is vital. And it actually does help of one can ask then in the nicest but nonetheless firmest way.

You don’t see this often enough on network or cable news. For the most part on this count they fulfill the right-wing slam of being the “lamestream” media. The competition for ratings boosting political stars has turned what should be a tough TV news media into maybe not lapdogs when they do major interviews, but they have become tail-wagging beagles that rarely show their teeth.

Hence it’s sadly ironic that the consistently strongest and most probing political interviewer on TV, from my observations, is Jon Stewart.

Yep, the comedian who hosts the “comedy news” show that has as much influence and impact as network TV news.

Why? All of the reasons above apply. He is warm and respectful no matter who he speaks to. He starts gently (establishing trust) and gets more firm and pointed as the interview proceeds. He deftly ups the enjoyable interaction factor with choice bits of levity. And Stewart has the knack for asking the hard questions with just the right amount of warmth and toughness. Plus he’s well informed, even beyond the obvious fact that every TV interviewer has a research staff.

And just how good Stewart is at it was proven not too long ago in yet another in an endless string of fabrications from Sarah Palin and her camp: That she is unafraid of him. Of course, she has her weasely out: that she doesn’t want to give a ratings boost to anyone who hasn’t been fair to her (read anyone who makes the most of her laughable presence in national politics).

And she is the huge but still worrisomely dangerous gift of obviously funny potshots that keeps on giving (though her biggest competition, Michelle Bachmann, is gaining on Palin’s title belt).

I imagine that if Palin has any common sense — a debatable point — she is scared of facing Stewart. If she had more finesse (thank God she doesn’t), she would take him on. Worked well for her former ticket-topper John McCain, at least until he got scared as he ran for president.

Next up behind Stewart is yet another comic — Bill Maher. The same factors all apply. Plus he has proven himself for years now amazingly adept at leading a forum discussion on not one but two shows (Real Time and Politically Incorrect).

Which begs the question: Why can’t we have a more activist TV media, which isn’t to say it needs to follow any agenda other than become more dedicated to reporting the truth in uncertain terms and asking the questions that evoke that? On the other hand, let’s be glad some TV political hosts are doing it, and also providing the comic relief we so sorely need in these bizarre times in which we live.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2011

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