Tough luck for anyone who was hoping to feel satisfied after watching Megyn Kelly’s much anticipated interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The roughly 10 minute discussion was featured on the debut episode of NBC’s new program, Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly. While she is often heralded as a skilled and tough interviewer, Putin was able to employ his usual techniques of mocking and flipping questions to the point where no viewer could walk away believing they had a better grasp on the political issues at hand.
Putin continued to deny any Russian meddling in the US election, alleging that hackers could be from anywhere. When asked about his knowledge of meetings between the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, and any members of the Trump team, he deflected by accusing the query itself of being absurd. “Do you think I have time to talk to our ambassadors every day all over the world? Complete nonsense", Putin said. When Kelly pressed him on Jared Kushner, the Russian President sounded a lot like the American one, chiding the media. “You people are so creative over there, good job,” Putin told Kelly. “Your lives must be boring.”
Pinning down Putin is impossible. That’s not because he is some slippery genius of wordplay whom no one can out maneuver. He just has no reason to be honest, least of all to an American audience. While in the US we may snicker that all politicians lie, there is still a belief that somewhere in the bureaucracy and checks and balances of our political system, there will be consequences for not telling the truth. In Russia, that doesn’t apply.
The Russian President also used the tried and true tactic of “whataboutism” or moral equivalence to side step Kelly's questions. While pointing to theories of JFK's assassination and election meddling by the US may draw eye-rolls here, the tactic works wonders with Russian audiences who reject what they view as American finger wagging. Giving it back to an American journalist will score Putin political points at home.
Kelly’s performance was also not without fault. While her questions ranged from election interference to Michael Flynn, and Donald Trump’s personal finances, we heard nothing of the conflict in Syria, or Putin’s geopolitical allies and interests. Call it a missed opportunity to glean the Russian mindset. To be fair, Kelly had put Putin on the spot about Bashar al-Assad and chemical weapons use while moderating a panel of world leaders at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, but that exchange didn’t make it to the primetime edit.
It’s not easy to be told you have whittle down an interview with a world leader to just a few questions. While I haven’t had the chance to sit down with Vladimir Putin, as a broadcast journalist I’ve agonized over many a high profile guest with whom I didn’t have adequate time. You will be judged, as is happening with Kelly. But that comes with the territory, especially when you’re paid a reported 15 million dollars by NBC, an employer seemingly willing to forget your race-baiting history at FOX News.
The most critical flaw in this one-on-one interview is that it was tailored for an American audience and it’s concerns. That approach isn’t surprising, after all NBC needs to play to both it’s viewers and the current news cycle, but it’s also why this television event was doomed from the start. The limited range of topics allowed the Russian President to ridicule and minimize the hyper focus on the US election and evade accountability for his government’s broader actions on a global scale.
As long as Putin and Russia are approached exclusively through an America-centric lense, deflection and dismissal will be given in return. In order to really flip the script and make the interview a challenge, journalists need to think of how Russians would question their own leader, if it weren't so risky to do so. Kelly had the freedom so many Russian journalists do not, and wasted the opportunity.