This morning, on CNN, I managed not to change the channel as I usually do when Soledad O’Brien is on the screen. It was a mistake. The long-time CNN anchor is as low as newscasting can sink short of MSNBC when it comes to smugly-biased commentary, and unlike some of MSNBC’s lefty warriors, O’Brien is just not very bright. This doesn’t keep her from visibly wincing, rolling her eyes or winking at the supposedly simpatico viewer when she thinks her opinion is superior to someone she is interviewing, as unprofessional a habit as I have ever seen. She has a job because, I suppose, she is pleasant to look at and exudes confidence, though it is confidence unsupported by any actual skill, insight or knowledge.
I hate to pick on Soledad, who I’m sure is a nice person, but I was just watching the riots in Greece and thinking about how these pathetic, trapped people, some of whom may be relatives of mine for all I know, are furious because they were deceived for decades by cowardly leaders who didn’t have the competence or courage to tell them, “No, you can’t retire at 50 with full benefits, ” and “No, you can’t have a guaranteed government job if you have no skills” and “No, the government can’t afford to maintain a welfare state while not forcing people to pay their taxes.” The Greeks never should have had the absurdly generous programs they enjoyed, because the country couldn’t pay for them, but get them and enjoy them they did, thanks to elected officials who wanted to be popular rather than responsible. Now the nation literally has no options but cruel austerity, and the public is screaming in pain, as onlookers say, “Those selfish, stupid Greeks! What did they think would happen?”
Well, I agree to some extent: it is dumb, and selfish, to protest wildly when you asked your elected officials to be reckless and they complied. On the other hand, who were the leaders, whose job it was to say, “Sorry, there are long term financial stability issues here”? The public trusted them to do the right thing. Did the Greek news media try to explain to the public why they couldn’t get everything they wanted, and why it was better to sacrifice moderately over time rather than suffer Draconian measures in a crisis?
I suspect not. I suspect the media in Greece was like Soledad O’Brien, as she interviewed Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas today. He had announced his opposition to President Obama’s budget proposal, which projects a nearly one trillion-dollar deficit. The Congressman explained that he felt the budget was irresponsible, because it didn’t address the 15 trillion-dollar debt at all, and projected an unacceptable deficit.He said he was bitterly disappointed that it made no effort to deal with the “drivers of the deficit,” meaning entitlements.
O’Brien (smirking at the camera): “So is there not one thing you like?”
Congressman Hensarling, maintaining his composure better than I would have, replied , “I’ve only had 16 minutes, so I haven’t read the entirety of it…”
O’Brien ( mockingly): “Only 16 minutes, but enough to be bitterly disappointed.…” [Translation for slow-witted viewers: “You see? These guys will hate whatever the President proposes!] Then she read off various items in the budget…all wonderful, of course: hiring more firemen and police, renovating schools, “job creation,” infrastructure…and said, I kid you not,
“You’re against all of those things?“
Hensarling responded that this wasn’t his point; it didn’t matter what was good or bad in the budget, the point was that it didn’t balance or reduce the deficit, added one trillion to the deficit, and that this was dangerous and unacceptable.
O’Brien (sighing and cocking an eyebrow in her best, “Can you believe this guy, now watch me nail him” manner): “You’re against all of those things???“
This is nauseating, and O’Brien undoubtedly doesn’t even know why. She thinks that she is standing with her audience against legislative gridlock (and with the President, as if that is responsible journalism) by hectoring an apparently reasonable member of Congress who was making a point worth comprehending, and one that really isn’t that hard to understand. When you are in a hole, stop digging. When you are in financial distress, start prioritizing. When I’m having trouble making the mortgage in a given month, and my son says that he has picked out the perfect racing bike to replace the one he’s outgrown, and I say that it’s out of the question until we have some surplus funds built up, it isn’t productive for him to keep asking, “What don’t you like about the bike?” In fact, it’s stupid.
But O’Brien was 1) being a political advocate, which she has neither the brains, experience, or right to be in her role as a news anchor; 2) was dragging the discussion to an infantile level by insisting that the focus be on whether the Congressman was “against” specific programs or not when budgets are supposed to lay out priorities and how they will be paid for. The impossibility of cutting the deficit and debt is created by narrow interest groups only focusing on the benefits that their pet programs represent, and refusing to focus on the absolute necessity of raising revenue and cutting expenses. O’Brien’s 4th grade-level coverage makes coherent policy discourse more difficult.
She could have illuminated the discussion in a dozen ways. She could have asked the Congressman about how he would suggest the budget prioritize objectives so as to reach responsible budget goals and allow for sufficient economic growth. She could have asked if there were specific big ticket items that he agreed were so essential—the infrastructure’s repair is an obvious example—that he agreed had to be part of the package. She could, in short, have helped inform her viewers, but because she 1) was determined to act as a mouthpiece for the Administration, and decided that it was her place to defend the budget, 2) was unable to rise to any level of professional objectivity, instead being disrespectful and unfair to a U.S. Representative by acting as if he was the idiot in the conversation, when he was not, and 3)does not possess the sophistication to contribute substantively to the budget issue, but is under the delusion that she does, all O’Brien did was warp the exchange into a “Here is the President trying to do all these good things, and the Republicans won’t let him” display of classic media malpractice.
If a newscaster can’t discuss the issues above an infantile level, and Soledad O’Brien clearly cannot, then she should handle interviews the old fashioned way: let the guest give an opinion, ask neutral, non-loaded questions for clarity, and allow the viewer to do the rest.
It used to be called “journalism.”