“Tough journalism”

Many pundits and ordinary folks alike admire Tim Russert for the very tough time that he gives the politicians that come on his show.  In truth, though, Russert is little more than a one-trick pony– presenting politicians with evidence of hypocrisy and challenging them to wiggle out of it.  Matt Yglesias has a brilliant take-down of what's so wrong with this sort of “tough” journalism.  Russert is not interested in asking useful questions that allow viewers to actually learn anything about the candidates or their policies, he's just interested in making them squirm, regardless of how secondary in importance the issue may be:

But while I wouldn't want to say that “tough questioning” is a bad thing, making toughness the goal
is perverse. The goal should be to inform the audience. Climate change,
for example, is a hugely important question. As a result, candidates
ought to be subjected to questions about their climate change plans.
And as it happens, the plans released by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama,
and John Edwards are all based on good science and good economics. So
asking them questions aimed at elucidating their plans shouldn't lead
to any embarrassing incidents. Shouldn't, that is, unless the
candidates are unprepared to discuss their own plans in an intelligent
manner which really would be worth knowing about.

John McCain, by contrast, might or might not end up embarrassed by
serious questions about his plan, which moves in the right direction
but on a schedule that's too slow and in a way that's too inefficient.
Serious questions would give him the opportunity to make the case for
half-measures and whether or not he winds up embarrassing himself would
turn on whether or not he can give a convincing rationale for what he's
doing — which is at it should be. His Republican counterparts, by
contrast, would almost certainly wind up embarrassed by serious
questions about their views of climate change since their policies are
badly at odds with reality.

The biggest problem, as Ezra Klein points out, is that other journalists see Russert as a model:

Matt's takedown
of Tim Russert's “tough,” which is to say, trivial, questioning, is
well worth a read. Russert's obsession with getting people to say
things that are embarrassing rather than illuminating is enormously
trivializing to politics, and all the more pernicious because his
program is what passes for “serious” discussion in Washington. He's not
the laggard, he's the model.

The truth is, if you want insightful commentary and understanding of what's going on politically, the TV political pundits are about the last place you should go.  I doubt Russert has ever provided any political analysis as insightful  as Yglesias' of how Russert's style pollutes the political process. 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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