The Cost of Not Asking Tough Questions

Brian Gongol

The 2016 election is going to be a disaster for America if our journalists can't find a way to step up their game...urgently.

Chuck Todd's interviews with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders on the August 16th episode of "Meet the Press" were about as penetrating as a cover story for the "Weekly Reader". To wit:

CHUCK TODD: Who do you talk to for military advice right now?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I watch the shows.

"I watch the shows"? That's not an answer. And when Trump simply evaded the question by giving the last names of two talking heads, Todd not only rolled over and accepted the answer, he actually prompted Trump with the first names of the people he thought Trump was acknowledging. No follow-up questions about whether he had ever so much as spoken a word to either man.

When he wasn't grasping at straws, Trump instead just made up numbers out of the thin air:

DONALD TRUMP: Look, we are a debtor nation. We owe, I mean, now it's 1.9 trillion, okay? I've been saying 1.8. Now, it's 1 point -- it's really kicked in. It's soon going to be 2.4 trillion dollars, okay?

No, we owe $6.2 trillion in Treasury debt to foreign holders. The total Federal debt is actually $18 trillion, when all lenders are accounted. Trump's figure is off by an order of magnitude. But Todd not only didn't correct the error, he didn't even acknowledge that an error existed, nor did he seek to clarify what "1.9 trillion" was supposed to mean. It's of positively no good to ask questions if the questioner has doesn't himself know the facts well enough to police an answer that is, at best, off by a factor of ten.

These aren't minor issues -- defense and the debt are two titanic matters on which a President ought to show that he has more than a fortune-cookie understanding of the issues. Regrettably, Todd was equally weak at interviewing Sen. Bernie Sanders.

CHUCK TODD: What do you think you have in common with the Trump voter? Forget Trump, but the Trump voter.

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, yeah, but here's the difference. You know, I am not a billionaire.

Did Todd do anything to press Sanders to actually answer the question? Not at all. He just moved along to a question about a Buzzfeed article.

CHUCK TODD: [Would a Joe Biden candidacy] Help your campaign or hurt?

BERNIE SANDERS: We'll let the political pundits determine that.

CHUCK TODD: All right, Senator Bernie Sanders, I look forward to a longer, extended, issue-oriented interview at some point where we can do the gambit of issues, including some foreign policy in the near future, sir.

There is something much more important to election reporting than never-ending process stories. Chuck Todd doesn't have to "look forward to" an issue-oriented interview in the future...he just has to ask issue-oriented questions, period. Most of us will not have the opportunity to ask tough questions and then doggedly pursue real answers. That's the job of the press. And if one of the premier political programs on television -- a show that prides itself on being "the longest running television program in history" -- can't do the job, then how can we expect this campaign to end up with a suitable result?

America's marathon election cycles are an extended interview process for one of the toughest and most important jobs in the world. But what use is a long electoral cycle if all of the questions along the way are superficial?

It's not the job of the press to act like PR Newswire on behalf of the campaigns. It's the job of the press to ask serious questions and demand serious answers. Chuck Todd may not be Jeremy Paxman (the BBC interviewer notorious -- and often criticized -- for grilling politicians like steaks at a barbecue), but he can't just defer to the candidates and let them breeze past serious questions without so much as a follow-up.

There are candidates in the race who are smart enough and willing enough to answer the questions that rise to the level of the needs of the country. They should get a chance to show that they're truly eligible for the job.

There are candidates who are smart enough to answer the questions, but who act like they're not. They should be exposed for the panderers that they are.

There are candidates who aren't smart enough to answer the questions, or who aren't serious enough to consider them. They should be ripped apart for wasting the time and attention of the American public.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Pardoning the bad is injuring the good." Asking journalists to take the job seriously is not a partisan matter -- it's not about left and right. It's about seriousness and intellectual depth. Those who run on narrow issues or for vanity should be treated like the lightweights they are. And interviewers who want to butter up their guests with fluff ought to know that Larry King already has that market cornered.

The serious candidates -- the ones we should actually consider for the highest office in the land -- should have no fear of tough, serious questioning from an intelligent and thoughtful interviewer. But what we're getting now is nothing of the sort. That only hurts the serious candidates -- and the country.