King and Queen

September 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

John McCain cancelled a scheduled interview with Larry King “as punishment for what his aides said was an unfair interview of a McCain campaign spokesman by the network host Campbell Brown on Monday night.” (Story in the New York Times ).

The claim of unfairness says a lot about the culture of politics and journalism.
ed. Here’s a clip from the interview.

What was unfair? Brown tried to get the McCain flak, Tucker Bounds, to answer the questions she asked.

First, she asks a question about Sarah Palin’s readiness to be commander-in-chief. Bounds’s answer is all about McCain. So Campbell Brown says (at 0:47), “I asked you about her.”

Then there’s this (at 2:11 in the clip), described by the Times
“Can you tell me one decision that she made as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard, just one?” Ms. Brown asked.

Mr. Bounds responded, “Any decision she has made as the commander of the National Guard that’s deployed overseas is more of a decision Barack Obama’s been making as he’s been running for president for the last two years.”

Ms. Brown pressed again, saying: “So tell me. Tell me. Give me an example of one of those decisions.”
Apparently, what’s unfair is to insist that a politician answer the question and if he doesn’t to point out that he has not answered it. At least in US journalism. If you listen to the BBC news, you’ll hear interviewers asking pointed questions, and when politicians – even cabinet secretaries – are evasive, the journalist will say, “But you haven’t answered my question,” and then repeat it.

In the US, such a demand is “unfair” to a candidate. If the interviewee is an office holder rather than an office seeker, the demand is “disrespectful.”

In a post about the film “The Queen” many months back, I speculated about the advantages of monarchy, of separating the role of ceremonial head of state from the role of political leader, rather than combining them as we do. A follow-up post quoted a British journalist on the cultural differences this has for political journalism. These posts focused on the Presidency. But the cloak of respect for the institution may flow farther down the line, so that we prefer all politicians, candidates for higher office, and their spokespersons to be treated with deference.

Or maybe, it’s just that we have a norm that face-to-face conversations – even interviews with politicians – should be “nice” rather than confrontational.

Or maybe not. At the same time that McCain was ducking Larry King, Obama was agreeing to go on Bill O’Reilly’s show. It will be interesting to see whether O’Reilly treats the Democratic candidate with greater civility than he shows to most guests he disagrees with. Maybe, Obama will be able to finish an answer to a question before O’Reilly interrupts him.


Héctor said...

Congratulations for your blog. First i say sorry because i speak english very bad (cause i´m spanish).

Your blog is very interesting. I think that your analysis are very great.

see you.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks Héctor, I'm sure your English is better then my Spanish. And it's nice to know the socioblog has at least one reader in Spain.