It happened again Sunday morning. Donald Trump appeared, after a fashion, as a guest on one of the venerable Sunday morning public affairs shows, ABC’s This Week. But he wasn’t live in the studio, he was on the phone.
No big deal, you say? Oh, but it is. Let me explain why.
For more than six decades politicians and those aspiring to high office have appeared — often begged to appear — on the Sunday morning talk shows. They’ve been the prime forum to answer questions about themselves, their ideas and their policies. I remember as a boy watching a dour little man named Lawrence Spivak poke and prod the high and mighty on Meet the Press. Spivak wasn’t interested in small talk, he wanted answers. He usually got them.
Since Spivak there’s been a long line of excellent Sunday morning inquisitors, including David Brinkley, Bob Schieffer, Cokie Roberts, Jorge Ramos and the man who set the gold standard, Tim Russert.
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Would Russert or any of those moderators have agreed to let a presidential candidate take questions on the phone rather than in person? Not for a second.
But that was then, Trump is now. He has profoundly changed not just the political landscape, but also the media landscape. He’s done so through the amazing audience he attracts, the force of personality — big, blustery, self-confident, arrogant, egotistical, hyperbolic — and his willingness to say provocative, even outrageous things that capture the zeitgeist.
Muslim immigrants? Keep ‘em all out. Immigration problems? Build a wall and make Mexico pay And on and on. Trump’s often factually wrong, not that it matters to his ardent followers.
But it does matter to journalists. It’s our job to hold Trump and anyone in a position of public trust accountable. It’s our duty to call him out when he makes spurious, bigoted or factually incorrect statements. Sunday morning TV is a perfect time to do it.
This past Sunday Trump blithely told ABC’s Jonathan Karl that it’s not only dangerous for Americans to travel now in Europe, but also dangerous for them to travel in the United States, ostensibly for fear of a terrorist attack. That’s ludicrous. But not a peep from Karl.
As the moderator for the last 26 years of a South Florida-oriented Sunday morning public affairs show on Channel 10 This Week in South Florida, I believe Karl would have acted differently had Trump been in the studio. Sitting across from a guest, looking him or her in the eye during an interview makes it easier to jump in and ask them to explain, clarify or defend something they’ve said. You can demand that they cite a source to back up a factual assertion. I’ve certainly had politicians refuse to come on our show for one reason or another — usually to avoid debating a political opponent. My answer is to show an empty chair.
To his credit, Chris Wallace of Fox hasn’t had Trump on Fox News Sunday in months because Trump refuses to come into the studio. NBC’s Chuck Todd has let Trump get away with it, but recently told the New York Times he’ll reconsider letting Trump phone in. He should demand that he appear in person or not at all.
Trump gets away with these shenanigans because he’s white hot, the guy with the juice. As he told Time magazine a few weeks ago, “I go on these shows and the ratings double, they triple. And that gives you power.” And as a Hollywood producer once said, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power is fabulous.” Trump would agree.
In the age of social media, the Sunday morning shows no longer have the power or influence they once did. They now share it with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google search and other social media. Trump excels at them all. But those are sites where people comment and argue rather than ask questions.
The best Sunday morning journalists know how to ask tough questions that sometimes shock civilians. “Is Donald Trump a racist?” the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty asked Hillary Clinton at the Miami debate. Jorge Ramos wanted to know if she expected to be indicted. Groans went up from the audience, but the question was not over the line. It echoes the classic definition of what newspapers are supposed to do: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
It certainly doesn’t make us popular, but that’s not the issue. The presidential candidates, particularly the Republicans, capitalize on our unpopularity whenever they need a whipping boy to send the audience into a frenzy. Trump supporters particularly hate the media as much as the political establishment because they think we’ve conspired to produce a system that benefits us, but excludes them. Sadly, there’s some truth to that. The media too often suck up to the political establishment hoping for an exclusive interview or a juicy tidbit of information or just plain gossip. Then we self-righteously broadcast or publish it, often giving sleazy, minor stories a stature they don’t deserve.
Just as voters are expressing their anger over politics as usual, they’re also expressing anger with the media as usual. Many see us as the establishment’s enablers and sometimes we are. We don’t exactly get in bed with the people we cover, but we sure can get cozy. Voters are telling us to stop it. I hear them.
I’ve been asking politicians and policy makers questions on TV for more than three decades and I’m uneasy over the direction Trump is taking us. Political candidates shouldn’t set the rules of engagement. They shouldn’t dictate capriciously how, when and where they’ll be interviewed. To accede to their demands doesn’t just demean our programs, it demeans the people who watch them. They would think the less of me if I caved and let a candidate for governor or mayor or any other office dictate the terms of our interview.
Sunday morning guests don’t get the questions in advance and they shouldn’t get them over the phone. They need to appear in person.