Ask a Stupid Question…

"Do you want honest appraisal from people around you?"
Which famous TV interviewer asked Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry that, uh, probing question? You probably can guess. But if not, the answer will be revealed shortly.

Interviewing is on my mind these days because so much of television news is as talky as it is visual. In fact, cable's 24-hour news channels strive mightily to fill time literally by schmoozing away the hours. What they sell as news is largely faux news: opinion, speculation and chitchat that arises during interviews.

It's less the talk itself that's maddening than how poorly it's executed, causing interviews to be squandered and opportunities lost at a time when getting straight dope is especially critical.

Good interviewing is an endangered species on television. Most TV interviewers are clueless clods who wouldn't know a devil's advocate from a devil's food cake. They fail to ask obvious questions, and the questions they do ask are often framed as answers. Plus, they fail to follow up, usually because they don't listen.

Who are TV's elite news interviewers? Of those I watch regularly, ABC's Nightline host Ted Koppel is still right up there, as is host Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press, when he's really boring in. Today's Katie Couric and Matt Lauer have their moments on NBC, too.

When it comes to locating connecting threads, though, the pedestal belongs to the host of Now With Bill Moyers, whose conceptual questions challenge the intellect. "Can you describe for me," Moyers asked a guest on PBS recently, "the raw material of life in the inner city?"

Some celebrated TV interviewers are not as accomplished as billed. ABC's Barbara Walters, who could wring tears from a turnip, has no nose for the jugular. Mike Wallace and the rest of the 60 Minutes crowd on CBS are good but often only as good as the questions written for them by field producers. CNN's Aaron Brown is thoughtful but buckles under the tonnage of his pensiveness. As a PBS interviewer, Charlie Rose is bipolar: He's a rocket—when not cutting off guests to launch his own indulgent monologues.

Much of discourse on all-news channels is conflict for its own sake, the common wisdom being that viewers prefer it to dialogue. And speaking of screamers, Fox's Bill O'Reilly is more Ivan the Terrible than interviewer, and Chris Matthews is only a little less strident on MSNBC.

Lowest on this food chain? He's the reverse O'Reilly. It's Larry King who—perched on the edge of his chair, poised to hug—asked Kerry if he wanted honesty from his advisers when the candidate and his wife visited CNN prior to the Democratic National Convention. Kerry had two choices. He could have said he preferred dishonesty. Fat chance. Or he could have said the opposite, which, predictably, he did, and King lapped it up like an obedient puppy.

King takes himself off the hook by saying he is not a journalist. But he plays one on TV. Although he can rev up a good human-interest chat, his hard-news interviews are generally barren, one soft lob after another. His show's strategy? Massage VIPs like Kerry and President Bush so they'll agree to return. In fact, that's why they do return.

Here's King to Kerry on picking John Edwards as his running mate: "Was the fact he's a trial lawyer a detriment?" Pushed to the wall again, Kerry admitted Edwards' legal experience was an asset.

To Kerry: "Is abortion a great moral issue for you?" Kerry, who is pro choice, said it is. But he has also said he believes life begins at conception. So instead of responding passively, King should have asked: If life begins at conception, why isn't your pro-choice position an endorsement of murder?

King plays no favorites, however. He's a bipartisan patsy, as affirmed by his sit-down with Bush and the First Lady last month. Typical question: "Isn't it hard to send people to war?" Surprise! Bush said it is.

Bush also repeated his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But he has also come out against "the federal government making decisions on behalf of everybody." King didn't note that conflict.

When Bush asserted that Kerry promised to raise taxes, moreover, instead of letting it pass, King should have pointed out that Kerry says he wants to raises taxes only on incomes of more than $200,000.

In response to a question, Bush repeated that he thinks replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax is an "interesting idea." King should have asked Bush what he finds interesting about it. Call it Interviewing 101.

Last week, NBC aired Lauer's own, much tougher sit-down with Bush, which it misleadingly called an "exclusive," as if Bush/King hadn't occurred. In NBC's defense, King's interview was off the radar by then. The raw material of incompetence is easy to forget.