For American journalists, interviewing the President of the United States is a big deal. Or at least it should be if you believe your job is to hold officials accountable. It’s a rare opportunity to sit down one on one with the leader of the most powerful country in the world. Everything of course depends on who is in office, and what’s happening in Washington and around the world at the time. The topics need to be relevant, and the time with the President will be limited. So how on earth does one prepare?
From now on, we can use the questions from President Trump’s interview with Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth as a clear example of what not to do. As Hegseth explained on Fox and Friends, he had 15 minutes to sit down with Trump on the sidelines of a signing ceremony for a VA accountability bill. In part 1 of the conversation, they covered veterans issues and part 2 was described by the network as talking about the healthcare push and hostility between the parties. What transpired is an embarrassment the profession of journalism.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel called the questions, “so soft I want to put them in a pillowcase”. I wouldn’t even be able to sleep on that pillow because it would provide zero neck support. It’s more like the questions were small puffs of smoke, or clouds that eventually dissipate.
Weigel also did us the favor of posting just the questions, rather than the video or the full transcript. Only when text is isolated and read out loud can you fully feel the fluff of this encounter. Find it below:
And how hard is it to have to wake up in the White House every morning instead of looking out at the ocean, Mr. President?
I jest, of course, but come on! I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that Fox News is an unbiased source, and clearly their coverage favors Republicans and the White House. CNN's Brian Stelter had a particularly good take down of the Fox and Friends morning show on Reliable Sources this week. And as I’ve written before, people tune in to have their world views reaffirmed. But do they also want to have their intelligence insulted?
The only way to assume that these questions weren't written by the President and his communications team themselves is that there seems to be an uneven distribution of queries focusing on Trump as a victim rather than as the huge, most successful hero occupying the executive branch there ever was. It's enough to make you cringe, laugh, cry and want to vomit all at once.
Now that I've got that off my chest, let's not downplay the damaging nature of journalism that obscures reality. Focusing on Elizabeth Warren and her loud microphone, instead of the prospect of people dying because of the Republican healthcare bills introduced in both the House and the Senate, works. As Greg Sargent writes at the Washington Post, a large majority of Americans don't have a clear sense of what the plan does. He points to a poll from the Kaiser Foundation that shows only 38% of respondents are aware of "major reductions" in Medicaid spending in the Senate GOP plan.
There is plenty of blame to put on the shoulders of most news organizations for not providing enough coverage of the critical issue of healthcare. The unprecedented secrecy with which Republicans have approached the entire process of pushing forward this legislation has also been terrifying to watch. But if it's possible, I think Fox News may have just hit a new low in the irresponsible journalism department - not because of their daily spin, which is a whole other story, but because they are the only network getting access to the President.
The Trump administration is increasingly operating in secrecy, slowly doing away with the White House press briefings and keeping the President himself away from any microphones. Prior to the end of last week, it had been over 40 days since Trump sat down for an interview - that had been with Fox News' Judge Jeanine Pirro. Then came not one, but two Fox exclusives last week, including the dumpster fire with Hegseth and another with Fox and Friends host Ainsley Earhardt. Obviously being friendly gets them continued access, but at what cost?