In the press gallery of the House of Representatives, off the beaten path of tourists, and accessible only to those with proper credentials, hangs a large photograph of a herd of cows. They’re standing in a haphazard semi-circle, gazing into the camera lens with that vacant stare that cows generally have. The caption under photo reads, “Press Conference.” The photo is shot from the position of someone who would have called the press conference. It’s easy to imagine that person standing before the herd, taking a deep breath and beginning. “Thank you for coming this morning …”
The photo has hung in that musty room for years, since the days when reporters were more self-deprecating, when they freely admitted to being herded about, hoping for something good to graze on. But, there’s a more important symbol in the photo—remember, it’s shot from the position of the interviewee—that person looking out over the herd, the person often in a powerful position with access to taxpayers money, and the citizens well-being. The legislator who may be thinking, “They ARE a bovine herd. I can throw them a few morsels to graze on. They’ll be content.” It is in some ways a reminder to any reporter who passes by the photo, “Don’t fall for the lie. Question authority. Check it out.”
This week, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a Fox News reporter and anchor by the name of Bret Baier stepped away from the herd. Baier disassembled the carefully crafted talking points of the most powerful man in the world. Like Toto in the “Wizard of Oz,” he ran up to the curtain, latched on with his incisors and threw back the veil to reveal numbers that don’t add up, fallacies, non sequiturs, diversions and other components of illogic that make up the president’s reasoning for an overhaul of the nation’s health care system.
Baier’s interview occurred in the same week that the herd was grazing on this grass:
ABC admitted paying $200,000 to the family of murdered toddler Caylee Anthony, for exclusive access to them in news stories.
Former New York Times editor Howell Raines—the man who personally supported, sheparded, and steadily promoted fact-challenged, mistake prone, plagiarist Jason Blair, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post about how Fox News is not a legitimate news organization.
The Toyota Motor Corporation demanded a retraction and apology from ABC for it’s star investigative reporters segment on sudden acceleration that included staged footage and other misleading distortions.
Also, in that same week, in the aftermath of the Fox Presidential sit-down, two other networks, NBC and CBS referred to Baier’s interview as “contentious.” They did not delve into the substance of why it was that way.
Insightful listeners to Baier’s interview recognized that the “contentiousness,” i.e., his frequent interruptions—for which he diplomatically later apologized to the president—came only at specific moments in the interview, when the presidents own statements conflicted sharply, even diametrically with what he had previously said, or when the facts were plainly in dispute. It is testament to Baier’s preparation and situational awareness at those moments, that he was able to pose those interruptions. And it brings up a larger point that goes to the very heart of why Baier’s interview maybe (should be) a seminal moment in the Obama presidency, in the stature of Fox News, and perhaps in the American media culture, as well.
The president has been described as a brilliant intellect. That, he may be. But after years of conducting interviews, and being coached upside-down and inside-out by media professionals in the ways of presenting oneself properly in front of a camera, I know a lot about what works on TV. The deep, authoritative, sonorous voice (smoking helps), the commanding erect posture, the earnest eye contact, the active, direct hand gestures, a large vocabulary, the quick turn of a phrase readily grasped. These are the surface ingredients that sway people unconsciously, that bring you over. Couple that with an uncanny politician’s knack for listening to a question, redirecting it, and answering it with something totally unrelated and you have President Obama as known to the world— the consummate communicator. Few people, maybe Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan, have reached that level of fundamental communicative skills in the modern TV era. I suspect Bret Baier has studied this and was able to do what few others have done: pierce it, and peer within.
But theres something more important. It deals with Baier’s skills or perhaps character—not Obama’s. It is an incredibly difficult thing to walk into the White House, with its trapping of grandeur and its history, to confront head-on the first African-American president in history, about legislation that could well be the lasting legacy of his presidency. Throw into that mix, the unrelenting criticism of Fox News from mainstream media, cable competitors and the left blogosphere, and then throw in this very large monster: the great unspoken, hidden, lurking demon of political correctness. It manifests itself in accusations of racism, cultural insensitivity, white privilege, mindless patriotism, red-state homerism, classism, and on and on. It has silenced many people, in the way that McCarthyism silenced dissenters in the conformist 1950s, and in the way that authoritarianism silences everyone in totalitarian countries. It silenced the press in the campaign of 2008, to the point where the associations Obama kept in his politically formative years, statements he made, positions he took, the “present” votes he cast, all were left largely unexamined by the mainstream media.
This week, in one fell swoop, in one 15 minute interview, Baier stepped away from the herd. He pulled back the curtain. He sent a message to the cows in that photo.
Anchorman a well-known news anchor from a top-10, big city station. The Daily Caller has elected to redact his identity to protect his anonymity.