Conservatives thought CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft was typically soft and deferential toward Barack Obama on Sunday night, but his fellow liberal journalists are high-fiving him. On Twitter, NBC’s Luke Russert oozed: “Steve Kroft was a friend to the nation tonight. Clear concise questions that got us important answers.” That’s an interesting tweet from the son of Mr. Two-Minute Question. But it sounds to many that you're somehow patriotic and nonpartisan or a "friend to the nation" when you rally around Obama.
Over at the Poynter Institute’s website, Al Tompkins interviewed Kroft and praised his “laser-focused” questioning. He even praised him for avoiding political questions (like enhanced interrogation). Questions that sounded to Obama critics like pathetic whiffle-ball questions were hailed for their professionalism:
Kroft gets right to the interview with, interestingly, an objective (or closed-ended) question. Not what journalists might expect.
KROFT: Mr. President, was this the most satisfying week of your presidency?
I would have expected a subjective question to work best at the beginning of the interview. I might have asked the question, "How satisfying was this week?" But Kroft's question was better than mine. His question would reveal any hint of gloating.
Was Kroft trying to "reveal" gloating? Or was he encouraging gloating, because he felt Obama deserved to pat himself on the back? For most interviewers, a short question is a good interview-starter, and this was not an occasion for a typical, sweat-inducing 60 Minutes grilling. But Tompkins avoided the history of Kroft's gooey interviews with Obama, especially before he became president. The second question was also a softball: "Was the decision to launch this attack the most difficult decision that you've made as Commander-In-Chief?" Tompkins asked about it:
Kroft is aware he used a lot of closed-ended questions, and he did it on purpose because of time pressures and because of how this President answers questions.
"I have interviewed him before and you don't want to ask him open-ended questions - you get long answers,”...Kroft explained, "It is difficult to interrupt the President - it is not something I particularly like to do. The thing about this president is he will give you his thought process if you ask him about it. He will explain the complexities that weigh on his mind."
This is where the bias becomes obvious. CBS and "60 MInutes" are known for hardball interviews, with plenty of interruptions. On the same program, Scott Pelley was tough on President Bush in 2007, and tough on John McCain in 2008. (See our "Syrupy Minutes" Special Report for the contrast.) But for Obama, the whole formula was thrown overboard. Kroft asked Obama at that time about whether the country was too racist to accept him, why people would think he was Muslim, and toughies about beer and bowling. But Tompkins and the rest of Kroft's fans don't see the short questions as deferential:
Even when he asks double-barreled questions, Kroft's questions are short, 15 words or less. That brevity makes this interview so watchable.
"I probably wrote the questions longer, but the good thing about writing your own questions is you know the material," Kroft told me. "I had to keep moving. I was so cognizant of the clock."
Kroft also know the interview is not about him. Less confident interviewers have a habit of asking long-winded questions to make themselves look informed and commanding. Kroft is authoritative.
Media critics of all kinds can object to interviewers who ask long-winded, self-involved questions. The interview should be about the interviewee and not the interviewer. But Kroft is not "authoritative" in these interviews. He's submissive. These Poynter people are typical liberals in that they can't find the liberal bias in anything, or bias somehow equals professionalism. Tompkins especially loved the ending, which offered Obama a strong emotional wallop before the stopwatch started to click:
Kroft moved toward the final soundbite with a statement, so the President was not backed into a corner and offered a remarkable ending:
KROFT: This was one man. This is somebody who has cast a shadow, has been cast a shadow in this place, in the White House for almost.a decade.
OBAMA: As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn't lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.
"We put that at the end because I thought it had a real sense of finality. I thought it was the strongest answer," Kroft told me. "I was interested in whether he had moral thoughts about it." Again, the subjective answer proves to be the most memorable answer in the interview.
The "60 Minutes" interview was laser-focused. Kroft didn't swerve off into politics and only lightly treaded into international affairs regarding Pakistan. Those issues will find their place in other shows at other times. This interview was about the decision-making process that led to an historic capture.
CBS put the "strongest answer" at the end because they love and support Obama. This interview was going to avoid any political squabbling, because they want to enable Obama's re-election in 2012 just as they enabled Obama's election in 2008. It was quite obviously a "spike the football" interview.
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