Television is a totalitarian medium, which has trouble accommodating diversity of opinion in a Hayekian universe of facts, where not all facts support any one particular side of an argument. TV tends to takes one of three approaches to controversy:
- "That's the way it is" -- The Walter Cronkite Consensus, a phony moderation that may in some sense be "objective," but is never really neutral. This is the TV version of the phony conventional wisdom that David Broder peddled for decades.
- Silencing dissent -- The Left has, correctly, excoriated the Beltway press corps for failing to provide due-diligence examination of the arguments in favor of the Iraq invasion. Even ferociously partisan Republicans who were the most hawkish in 2002-03 must now admit that Americans didn't get the whole story in the months leading up to the invasion. One of the reasons was that TV news did an excellent job of ignoring skeptics, not all of whom were International A.N.S.W.E.R.-type peacenik kooks. TV news tends to reduce arguments to exactly two sides, pro and con, and to exclude voices that don't fit neatly into those categories.
- The "Crossfire" Syndrome -- Speaking of Manichean dualism! Lauer evidently feels obligated to challenge and dispute an assertion with which he disagrees. He is not content to do what a good print-news interviewer always does in such a situation: Let the subject of the interview speak their piece, and then come back later to ask them about some particular fact that contradicts their viewpoint.
No need to be adversarial in such a situation. In fact, the reporter in this scenario wants to present himself as sympathetic and open-minded: "Hey, what's your side of the story?" You save your toughest question -- your smoking-gun "gotcha" -- for the end, because if the source gets all huffy and hostile then, you've already got a whole notebook full of quotes.
TV news, as a medium, doesn't work that way. Everything is real-time and the clock rules. Lauer knows going in that he's got exactly X-number of minutes with Malkin, and begins with the determination to control the interview for its entirety in a way that no print reporter ever does (or should).
There have been times I've talked to a source for an hour or more, and the entire news value of that interview was two sentences. Print news is patient in a way that live TV is not.
Much criticism of "the media" is actually a criticism of television, and of TV's unexamined influence on other media. As a print reporter, it does not matter what my opinion is -- especially in a place like Washington, D.C., which has now fewer than four daily newspapers.
So long as I'm reporting facts accurately, any imbalance can be counteracted by either (a) a follow-up story the next day, (b) the outraged letter-to-the-editor presenting "the other side," or (c) competing coverage in another paper, reporting whatever it was I missed in my story.
TV news is not as easy as it looks -- for a 2001 interview, I watched ABC's Peter Jennings do a live studio anchor on George W. Bush's first White House press conference, and was impressed -- but it cannot be done well by people who are not conscious of its limitations and inherent biases as a medium.
Jennings took heat for bias -- he was notoriously sympathetic to Israel's enemies, which critics attributed to his having shagged every Arab hottie within reach back when he was a Mideast correspondent -- but he nevertheless had a concern for professionalism that Lauer entirely lacks.
Believe it or not, Jennings took his critics seriously. Conscious of his own liberal views, he had a real curiosity about what made people see things differently.
Jennings and I stood in the snow on the sidewalk outside the ABC News Washington that day, taking a smoke break. (He kept a pack of Camel Lights in his desk, but said, "Don't report this. My wife would kill me.") And as we stood there, off-the-record, Jennings began to interview me.
Who was I? Where did I come from? How many kids did I have? How did I end up at The Washington Times? The man had a real desire to know, and that had a real impact on my perception of a guy whom I'd been prepared to discvoer was a blow-dried Ted Baxter stereotype. Biased or not, Jennings was a real reporter, a guy who took notes and paid attention.
In fact, my feature profile of Jennings was so positive that our editor-in-chief, Wes Pruden, felt the need to edit the story personally, and include a bit of snarky negativity that I considered most unfortunate. And, alas for poor Peter, it wasn't Mrs. Jennings who killed him, but those Camel Lights.
Matt Lauer, quite frankly, is not fit to be called a "journalist" in the sense that Peter Jennings was. We can trace a descending arc in the quality of TV journalism, and Matt Lauer is not an apogee of that arc.