--Richard E. Vatz
In the plethora of interviews and public appearances by President Barack Obama of late, one expects the most serious and informative exchanges to come from the gold standard of interview shows: "60 Minutes."
Regarding the “60 Minutes” interview by Steve Kroft of President Obama tonight, a few thoughts:
Where was the Steve Kroft who interviewed with some toughness candidate Barack Obama a year ago February? Where was the "60 Minutes" (Scott Pelley) that did that wonderful interview of the CIA interviewer who inveigled great substantive information out of the captured Saddam Hussein?
Was Kroft as bad as Barbara “Follow-up Questions Ruin My Interviews” Walters? No…every once in a while there was a hint of a least a non-pressing follow-up question.
The mark of a bad-interview-which-appears-to-be-a-good-interview is the asking of good, relevant questions combined with the neglect of follow-up questions. It allows the respondent -- in this case the President – to say whatever he wants without worrying about the interviewer’s insisting that the respondent answer the question asked.
Kroft asked President Obama whether as a Constitutional lawyer he was concerned about the constitutionality of taxing the gains of AIG executives at a confiscatory rate to punish them for gaining from a legal contract. An interesting question, that.
Obama said something to the effect that the Administration was doing the best it could to solve the situation, avoiding the interesting question.
Kroft asked about the growing doubts concerning the mettle and ability of Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner to do his job as well as the growing number of people who want him to leave his position. Obama stated firmly, as he has done before, his unambiguous support.
Kroft asked Obama about his attack on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s criticism that the Obama Administration had left America less safe through its anti-terrorism weaknesses and incompetencies. After the President talked about how Cheney and President Bush has made the country more vulnerable through its insensitivity toward the Muslim world, Kroft had his first apparently good follow-up: What about the terrorists who had been released who had gone back to supporting terrorism? Obama avoided the question and rhetorically asked how many terrorists the Bush Administration had brought to justice.
Did Kroft say, none, but they were prevented from engaging in terrorism, were they not? No. There was no follow-up.
Then came part Two…don’t ask…Kroft channeled Walters and asked what was “the most frustrating part of the job.” He (Kroft) was fascinated by what the President called the Rolls Royce of swing sets. And there were more touchy-feely questions about the Presidential family, about whom the viewer was as convinced of their essential decency and cuteness. An attentive viewer was also convinced about the irrelevance of such time-consumptive matters at a moment of overwhelming domestic and foreign crises.
How about a question on contradictory presidential rhetoric: Obama said on the “Tonight Show” that one of the problems in Washington is that “everybody’s always looking for someone else to blame.” How does that square with the President’s repeated claim that the country’s economic problems were “inherited” by his administration?
Steve Kroft is a different interviewer from the Barbara Walters-types. He has the ability to interview well, and he has done so on many prior occasions. Is Kroft so mystified by the likeable and personable president that he cannot ask him a tough follow-up question?
One would hope not. Steve Kroft, we hardly knew you in this interview.
Richard E. Vatz is professor of political communication at Towson University
Sunday, March 22, 2009
--Richard E. Vatz