Out of Touch

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In the past, I've indicated my preference for NPR over conservative talk radio. There's more real content, less of the shouting match that you find on both conservative radio and cable news station shows, and mostly real commentary informed by real research and careful thought processes, with people from many backgrounds and occupations and issues along a wide spectrum of interest. My one caveat showed up in spades yesterday on Terry Gross's "Fresh Air". Most of the people at NPR just seem to me to be out-of-touch with mainstream America in a few important ways (though not at all on others, and maybe they capture the others better than the other shows I was comparing them with). It wasn't just the sense that she was out-of-touch, although that came through. She seemed to me to have a clear political agenda driving her attempt to force a sound byte for her own view from a well-known and much liked conservative.

Gross was interviewing Lynne Cheney, and I came in at what seemed to be the end of a fairly congenial and enjoyable discussion of how she views herself as a mother of a lesbian and what she thinks about how she as a mother of a lesbian reflects on homosexuality. I caught just the tail end of that, but that's what it sounded like, and both of them seemed to be in good spirits. Then Gross committed two serious journalistic no-nos, and Cheney was really uncomfortable, which made her third gaffe, which was minor in itself, seem much worse than it really was. In the end Gross just seemed unprofessional, something I rarely perceive in her no matter who she's interviewing. I guess something about this issue just caused her to lose her professional demeanor and journalistic integrity. It is very close to her, even though she's not gay herself.

The first thing she did started out fairly innocently, but it's what she did with it that became a problem. She asked Cheney about her attitude toward the gay marriage amendment the president has supported. Not surprisingly, Cheney simply reiterated the stance she's taken in the past. She's opposed to the amendment and thinks it should be kept as a state issue. Gross kept pushing, wanting her to answer more specific questions about what she thinks the right policy would be at the state level (though I don't think the way she worded it made that clear). She did this at least three times after Cheney had said that she wanted to leave it at opposing the amendment and not discuss it further.

After a few of Cheney's attempts to state that she doesn't want to take a public position on the issue, Gross asked her if it was hard for her to disagree with the president on this, and Cheney was pretty mad at this point, so she just flat-out said that she'd just disagreed with the president publicly about six times in the last minute or two, so it's not that hard. I can understand why she was short with her. She had said quite a few times that she didn't want to talk more about it. Each time Gross continued to push her on it. Finally, she just abruptly stopped talking, and Gross had nothing to say either. It took her a few stumblings to find words even to begin another line of questioning, and she sounded really awkward. The whole thing was just so throroughly unprofessional that if I didn't know better I would have thought this was Gross's first interview.

The second element was what leads me to say Gross is completely out-of-touch. In the midst of all this, Gross mentioned the president's support for the FMA. When Cheney seemed unmoved that she might hold a position in contrast with the president whom her husband is serving as vice-president with, Gross said something about how Rove had used it as a major wedge issue in the campaign, and how it had gotten all the evangelists out to vote. I wish I had the exact quote, but she did use the word 'evangelists'. If she doesn't know the difference between evangelists and evangelicals, then she knows very little about the religion of church-attenders in the U.S. A serious journalist, particularly in the aftermath of the 2004 election given the commentary about evangelicals, should not make that mistake. It's not just insulting to evangelicals, though it is. It shows that she doesn't care enough about evangelicals to know the correct word to describe them. Mostly, though, it just shows ignorance, and that's not something I would expect to be true of someone who interviews the high-profile people she does.

There was also one minor thing that gave the impression that she was just digging herself further into the hole her first two gaffes had begun. After finally conceding to Cheney's wishes to talk about history and children's books, which was what Cheney had been led to believe the interview was going to be about, Gross asked her about a novel she'd written that was no longer in print. She hadn't read the novel, because she couldn't get ahold of a copy. Usually she shows careful research of everyone she interviews, and the one time she couldn't do it happened to be the one time she was already doing a poor job with the interview. She introduced the novel she wanted to ask Cheney about as a novel with a lesbian character. Cheney immediately corrected her, interrupting her in mid-sentence to say that it doesn't have a lesbian character in it. It does have someone who isn't clearly lesbian but has an ambiguous relationship that other characters in the book suspect is lesbian, but the book never settles it.

Gross was dumbfounded, because people had told her that the character was lesbian. Unfortunately for her, she probably didn't have any way to know better, but this just made a bad situation look even worse. I don't blame her for her error in facts. I do wonder why she chose to introduce this back into the discussion when Cheney had explicitly told her that she didn't want to discuss those issues anymore and wanted to focus on history and children's books. Overall, Gross's integrity as a journalist and reputation as a careful researcher have dropped a notch or two as a result of this interview. It's too bad, because most of the time her interviews are very good.

Just for the record, conservatives and/or evangelicals can be out-of-touch and politically misinformed, e.g. thinking environmentalists are all tree-worshiping druids, feminists are all man-hating lesbians who think my wife's sexual advances count as me raping her, gays all have some agenda to control our school systems' ideology, intellectuals are all ivory-tower social isolationists who don't interact with the real world, and pro-choicers want to increase the number of abortions.

People of all sorts can be out-of-touch. In Gross's case it combined with her desire for a pro-gay soundbite, from a conservative who has given every indication in earlier intereviews that she won't give such a soundbite, to show gross unprofessionalism, no pun intended. I think if she had really understood the conservative reasoning behind wanting to keep marriage a state-level matter, she wouldn't have assumed she could draw out a deeper moral condemnation of social consevatives' views, which may just be a result of not being in touch with the main views on this issue that are out there. I hope she learns from this for future interviews that deal with conservatives on homosexual issues.

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Lazy linking from Uncle Sam's Cabin on February 11, 2005 12:43 PM

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Ms. Gross has a tendency towards this type of behavior when discussing homosexuality. Some months ago, she had Pat Buchanon on for an hour-long interview. Much as you did with the Lynne Cheney interview, I caught the tail end of an amiable discussion. Ms. Gross obviously knew something of Buchanon's positions. The conversation came to a complete halt, though, when she pressed him on the FMA. Mr. Buchanon stated rather succinctly that he thought of homosexuality as an abomination (as he has stated before in many venues for anyone who will listen). Ms. Gross at this point was completely flumoxed. She was unable to muster any of the classic liberal arguments for gay marriage. She especially was unable to bring up debates on this issue from within the evangelical community. In this case, she seemed completely unprepared to deal with a person who was polite, thorough, and succinct in his presentation of a controversial subject. The best she could do was a "but, but... what about..." The interview subject quickly shifted to Da Ali G show.

I was left with the same impression. Ms. Gross had no concept of even one conservative viewpoint on homosexuality.

I think we are all "out of touch" with most of the world and only "in touch" with our areas of interest, though sometimes our "touch" on even those quarters is light at best.

The thing that is important in this case, ALIMHO, is that when one presumes to professionally confront the subject of an interview on a public stage, one should know something about what one is talking about and should at least "get in touch" with the issues you are confronting. To not do so is to attempt to pillory and propagandize, rather than interview and enlighten.

This is an area of public ethics that I believe is much abused, from all parts of the socio-religious-political spectrum. From preachers to pundants, straw men are unworthy opponents for us all.

Just for the record, she interviewed Barbara Boxer yesterday and used the word 'evangelicals' at least twice. I assumed it had been a slip at the time, and this shows that it was (and I think I've heard her use the label many times before too), but a slip like that reveals at least something about her preparedness, understanding of the issues, and ability to cope with when things don't go as she expects.

Of course, our current President is famous for such slip-ups himself. I try to cut him a lot of slack there & not go drawing conclusions about what such verbal gaffes "reveal."

I heard all of the interview with Lynne Cheney yesterday and I thought it was going well until Gross blundered into the homosexuality issue. I was hoping that Gross wouldn't go there (the interview was about teaching American history to children) but I wasn't surprised when she did. I doubt Lynne Cheney was either. You have to think that she prepares for the possiblity whenever she does an interview. I've heard more than a few interviews that Gross (and others on NRP) have done with conservatives and I always get the impression that she's trying to get a gotcha moment. It mars what are usually really good interviews.

Keith, that's a fair point, but it was in the context of all the other stuff. I wouldn't have made a big deal about it otherwise. Also, there's a difference between being a politician and being a journalist. One is supposed to make the right decisions. The other is supposed to talk about them coherently and in a balanced and honest way.

OK, but it's a bit strange if we start holding reporters to higher standards than the President. (But, come to think of it, maybe just that difference in standards can explain a lot of recent goings-on... :) The President is indeed supposed to make the right decisions, but it's also a big part of his job to talk about policy coherently and to communicate well -- or at least so I was led to believe when it was being eplained to me how great President Reagan was b/c he was "the great communicator."

Bush's slip-ups do reveal something about him. He doesn't do well details in off-the-cuff discussions. He mispronounces things a little more often than most people do, and he stumbles over his words a little more than most people do, though within normal range (and many of the so-called Bushisms are just elements of his regional accent). Little of that has anything to do with communicating policy effectively.

The only thing I'm holding journalists to that I'm not holding presidents to is use of formal, standard English, which their profession requires. The president needs to do that when giving formal speeches, with allowance for deliberate drifts into relaxed speech for certain purposes, but in informal and unprepared talk there's no reason for him to do what journalists are expected to do. So there are differences.

As always Jeremy, your the man.

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