Why Lawrence O’Donnell’s Interview With Herman Cain Wasn’t Unethical Journalism

Lawrence O’Donnell’s unconscionable roast of GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain —-no fair journalist would call it an “interview”—made me realize that broadcast journalism ethics have fractured to the point where it is unfair to apply the same ethics standards to different networks and programs. My initial reaction to seeing O’Donnell’s over-the-top performance was that it represented a new low in broadcast journalism interview ethics. Now I think that is unrealistic and unfair. O’Donnell’s conduct was what MSNBC’s audiences want to see, and what critics should expect to see. Herman Cain, the target in this case, consented to the abuse. Where’s the unethical journalism? There was no journalism.

When Stephen Colbert makes some wacko or pompous extremist look silly in one of his expert tongue-in-cheek -interviews on “The Colbert Report,” I can’t call that a journalistic ethics breach. It may be cruel, as with the humiliation of clueless boobs in “Borat…”, but Colbert hardly hides his shtick, and anyone who submits to it is either a consenting participant or inexcusably careless. If David Gregory dumped green slime on the heads of unsuspecting guests on “Meet the Press,” that would be unethical. Guests on Nickelodeon, however, routinely get such treatment: it is part of the culture there, and completely acceptable.

One has to presume, since O’Donnell still has his program (MSNBC’s best rated), that the channel’s honchos see nothing wrong with his treatment of Cain, a relentless attack consisting of spurious accusations, insults and hostility.  One also has to presume that MSNBC fans watch such fare to applaud free-form hatred of all things conservative, Tea Party or Republican, and not to be enlightened or to be exposed to contrasting opinions so they can examine their own.  Journalism involves reporting important events and helping the public understand them by applying objective analysis. I think responsible and probing journalism is greatly needed in the case of Herman Cain, who is the 2011 edition of Ross Perot… a smart, quick-witted, creative outsider with a lot of good ideas, some terrible ones, and a guaranteed political disaster if he ever became President. But O’Donnell and MSNBC are happy to let someone else do that important job, so it is unfair, I believe, to hold them to journalistic standards.

Fox News defined its own standards, and has been pretty good about meeting them. It approaches all stories and issues with a rightward bias, which allows it to focus on some important stories that ABC, NBC, CNN, and CBS, which do not meet their stated standards (they claim to be objective, and are not), fail to report. All of these, including Fox, still aspire to some kind of broadcast journalism, however. MSNBC, as the Cain dialogue shows, no longer does.

Much of the coverage of O’Donnell’s mugging of Cain has focused on the segment where O’Donnell accused Cain of failing his duty to his race by not participating in civil rights protests when he was in college. It was the one part of the attack where O’Donnell drew blood, because Cain, understandably but unnecessarily, became defensive. O’Donnell began by reading a passage from Cain’s book in which he recalls his father  advising him, at the height of segregation, to avoid trouble by quietly taking a seat in the rear of the bus. Cain wrote that he followed his father’s advice.

O’Donnell asked Cain, “Where do you think black people would be sitting on the bus today if Rosa Parks had followed your father’s advice?” This is a despicable and unfair question. Those who risk their lives, freedom and health to battle oppression are heroes, but those who don’t find the courage, inspiration or opportunity to be heroes should not be denigrated or criticized.  O’Donnell, a white Irish-American who never had to fight for his civil rights in his lifetime, is recklessly impugning the character of not only Cain but millions of other blacks from Cain’s era and before, who also chose to sit in the back of the bus. More significantly, Cain’s decision not to actively protest in the Sixties was made by a young college student in his early 20’s. That is not the 65-year-old man now running for President, and Cain should not have to defend the views, choices and values of that young man now.

O’Donnell’s civil rights smear was fairness personified, however, compared to this exchange:

O’DONNELL: Can you explain how you avoided military service during the Vietnam War and during the draft and why you should be Commander-in-Chief if you did successfully avoid military service during the war that came during what would have been your war years, how you, after avoiding the Vietnam War, why should you be Commander-in-Chief?

CAIN: Lawrence, first of all, I wanted to clarify the record because I didn’t want to be accused later of saying that I served in the Navy. And if you read the book closely, it says I worked for the Department of the Navy. Now, your choice of words to say, “How did I avoid the Vietnam War?” I wasn’t trying to avoid the Vietnam War. Here’s what happened, Lawrence. I was working in a critical area called exterior ballistics. I worked on something called the rocket-assisted projectile for the Department of the Navy. It was my local board in Atlanta, Georgia, that told me, we would rather for you to continue to do that analytical work to help the Navy rather than us drafting you. Secondly, when they had the lottery, I made myself available. The year that they had the lottery for the draft they did not draft me because they didn’t get to my number. So I think that’s a poor choice of words on your part, to say that I avoided the Vietnam War. I made myself available to my country, and they did not draft me. The rest of the time I was serving my country in a critical role called exterior ballistics analysis. So I am offended with your choice of words in terms of what I was doing during the Vietnam War.

O’DONNELL: I am offended on behalf of all the veterans of the Vietnam War who joined, Mr. Cain. The veterans who did not wait to be drafted like John Kerry who joined. They didn’t sit there and wait to find out what their draft board was going to do. They had the courage to join and to go and fight that war. What prevented you from joining, and what gives you the feeling that after having made that choice you should be the Commander-in-Chief?

If you can find anything appropriate in O’Donnell’s accusations, please go watch MSNBC: they’re waiting for you:

  • Neither of the last two Democratic presidents served in the military. President Clinton, famously, went through every maneuver possible to avoid the draft. Vice President Biden got five deferments. O’Donnell is making up an absurd qualification requirement for the presidency that has never been discussed or advocated since the nation was founded, and that he would never require of candidates from his own party.
  • Cain’s explanation that he was already working for the military and thus was deemed more valuable where he was is reasonable and credible: the military would have been in dire straits if all its civilian workers quit to join up.
  • When has waiting to be drafted rather than enlisting been regarded as some kind of failure of character? The military drafts the soldiers it needs, when it needs them. Cain is correct: he made himself available, that fulfills his duty as a citizen, and there was nothing shameful or cowardly about it.
  • O’Donnell’s argument that it is offensive not to enlist in a war effort is reminiscent of the conservatives who ask advocates of higher taxes why they don’t pay extra taxes whether they are required to or not. It is also absurd for O’Donnell—who himself avoided the draft on a college deferment!— to pronounce himself “offended on behalf” of Vietnam veterans. I know a lot of Vietnam veterans, and not one of them has ever expressed any bitterness toward those who were ready to be drafted and never were. I would be very surprised if Sen. Kerry held the view that O’Donnell attributes to him.
  • How dare the uber-liberal O’Donnell, who undoubtedly believes that the Vietnam War was a fiasco, a waste of lives and resources, and national tragedy, and whose closest associates were probably causing campus riots to shut down ROTC, insist that someone else  should have risked his life in that war and isn’t qualified to be President because he didn’t?

O’Donnell embarrassed himself, but his questions were not that far removed from the daily rants and distortions of his colleagues like Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, and Martin Bashir. Never mind, though: it’s not unethical, because what O’Donnell is doing isn’t journalism, and no longer pretends to be. MSNBC has abandoned journalism, and is now a full-time progressive/liberal agitprop channel.

By agitprop and street theater standards, O’Donnell’s act was good entertainment for the audience it was aimed at, and thus completely ethical.

Just so long as he doesn’t pretend it was anything else.

6 thoughts on “Why Lawrence O’Donnell’s Interview With Herman Cain Wasn’t Unethical Journalism

  1. Jack, I was very disappointed in Lawrence O’Donell’s criticism of Herman Cain over the issue of his not serving in Vietnam. Cain’s work in the field of exterior ballistics was a form of service to his nation (and was recognized as such by the draft board). And you are correct, too, in noting that unless Donnell is going to fault all politicians who managed to avoid serving in Vietnam, it makes no sense to even raise the issue. I’m disappointed that MSNBC sometimes acts like its job is to be a cheerleader for one party and an oppoent of the other. But O’Donnell makes his political preferences (or boases) so clear, and is to forthright about his positions, it’s not as if he’s trying to con anybody. And I still learned a good bit, just listening to Cain’s answers, regardless of the questions. The fact that, for example, he didn’t want to name the supposed expert economists who endosed his 9-9-9 taxation idea, said a lot. — CHIP DEFFAA

    • I agree: the encounter was educational and informative; a professional interview that was fair, tough and respectful would have been more so. We would have learned something useful about Mr. Cain in O’Donnell physically attacked him: courage, reaction under pressure, coolness in a crisis…I don’t think that would change the assessment that O’Donnell would have abandoned all ethical interview standards.

  2. 1. Lawrence O’Donnell’s treatment of Herman Cain was unconscionable.

    2. Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t a journalist, or at least he isn’t functioning as a journalist on his show. I’ve found him an interesting guest on other news/commentary programs, but I think his current MSNBC iteration is unwatchable. That said, I don’t think it’s an indictment of MSNBC, any more than the fact that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t function as a journalist on his show is an indictment of Fox News.

    3. One thing that can be said is that O’Donnell is willing to go face to face with people he disagrees with. Yes, he’s a bully (again, like O’Reilly) but the effect, intended or otherwise, is that the guest gets to be heard, and we get to find out something about him/her. I thought Mr. Cain handled the civil rights and Vietnam assaults extremely well: I saw someone who wasn’t going to get rattled easily by criticism, even the inevitable unjustified criticism. I also saw someone not really ready to grapple with larger issues (like the ramifications of his own economic plan). That’s worth knowing, too. So, while I realize that this is, in part, an end-justifies-the-means argument, there was at least some benefit to be derived from the O’Donnell/Cain encounter: more so, probably, than would have accrued from a different kind of pseudo-journalist who would compliantly allow the candidate to spew talking points without really having to engage in actually thought.

    4. That said, see #1.

    • Rick, I can’t stand O’Reilly, but he’s never done an interview as outrageously unfair as what O’Donnell put Cain through. O’Reilly also goes head-to-head with adversaries, and when he has an adversary of substance (and I actually dislike this) he is especially fair—he doesn’t try to bully the really big fish.

      I agree with all your points; The fact that O’Donnell’s whatevertheyares can be informative doesn’t make them professionally acceptable, though. MSNBC is in a downward spiral situation, with Schultz, Baskir and O’Donnell diving for rock bottom, and it is pulling Maddow and Matthews along—both have been far more excessive than once was the case. There’s really no excuse for any host to be hostile based on what someone believes. O’Donnell was hostile from the start. Why? To show that he thinks someone with Cain’s views isn’t just wrong, but “bad.” A serious news organization would warn him, suspend him, or fire him.

  3. O’Donnell was 18 in 1969 so why didn’t he enlist to go to Vietnam instead of going to Harvard?

    One of these days O’Donnell is going to run his mouth at the wrong person and get his ass handed to him.

  4. Today March 9th 2012 i listened to the interview. Lawrence was correct in questioning Cain . Cain stated in the interview that he was in the 10th or 11th grade during the civil rights period . Not exactly Cain you were a freshman in 1963-1967 at Morehouse college. Cain was a joke and only after publicity. to sell books. Fox news may need another LIAR. When i determine that a person is a fake , personally I do not like to be lied to. Softball questions are too good for liars. Hardball questions is exactly what was necessary in that interview. I applaud Lawrence and MSNBC. It is true FOX is the voice like Rush for right wing. It is also true MSNBC is the voice of the left. I myself as a liberal am aware that people on the right call me a socialist, communist and even a traitor. Now on the left , we liberals call the right racists, bigots and even ignorant. One thing for sure we are Americans and divided we are. I pray for peace

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