The notion of objective, truth-seeking journalism is a hotly debated topic these days, often under the umbrella of the term “fake news.” If you want a vivid examination of the issue, consider two separate interviews on the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki — both, interestingly, from Fox News. One is real news; one is not.
Over the years, Fox’s commentator Sean Hannity has vacillated over the distinction of whether he should be identified as a talk-show host or a journalist. His interview with President Donald Trump shortly after the Helsinki press conference on the Russian summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin makes the case pretty clear.
Imagine the president as the inventor of a hair-restoration product or a new miracle cleanser and Hannity as the host brought in to give an infomercial the feel of a legitimate interview and you have an accurate picture of the nature of the Trump-Hannity conversation. Hannity opens with praise for the president being “very strong on Russia” at the press conference and follows with an admiring reference to President Trump’s diatribe on the Hillary Clinton email investigation after being asked whether he would tell Putin never to meddle in American elections again. At one point, Hannity introduces a question by taking a Barack Obama quote out of context to suggest, apparently, that the current president is addressing a problem on election meddling that the previous one did not believe existed. He goes on to lead Trump for nearly 17 minutes through a fragrant spring meadow of favored talking points on which they both express open agreement and that have little or nothing to do with the Helsinki summit — the “unhinged media” (Hannity’s phrase) and the Department of Justice’s Russian-interference “witch hunt” (both Hannity’s and Trump’s phrase), the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. economy and very little else about the subject at hand — the first true summit of the two top nuclear powers in the world.
Contrast that with Fox reporter Chris Wallace’s post-Helsinki interview of Putin. Throughout an always-respectful but often-tense 33 minutes, Wallace struggles to keep the Russian president on an unadorned path through a thicket of uncomfortable topics, starting with the initial challenging question of how the “worst ever” relationship between Russia and the United States could have changed in just a few hours. He then turns immediately to the Mueller indictment. After an uneasy few seconds when he tries unsuccessfully to hand a copy of the indictment to Putin, he repeatedly challenges the leader’s characterizations. When Putin says that at best, the suspects are individuals acting on their own, Wallace asks, “Is the GRU not part of the Russian state?” When Putin asks whether someone really thinks Russia could influence the minds of American voters, Wallace replies, “I’m not asking whether they influenced; I’m asking whether they tried.”
Later, Wallace asks point blank whether Trump’s apparent deference to Putin stems from Russia having something on him or whether it could be from Putin’s expertise at manipulating people through his training and experience in the KGB. He asks whether it wasn’t “deliberately provocative” to show the simulation of a new missile prototype attacking Florida near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, and when Putin tries to counter that there was nothing that said “Florida” in the simulation, Wallace responds, smiling, in a tone of incredulity, “You can see it on a map.”
In one exchange he asks if Putin has “no qualms about targeting civilians” in Syria. In another, he looks directly into the face of a man known for his fierce brutality and asks, “Why is it that so many of the people who oppose Vladimir Putin end up dead or close to it?” and then rattles off a laundry list of names. He recalls Putin’s reputation as a reformer when he ascended to his post in 2000 and asks, “What happened?”
The interview is, in short, an informative, compelling and sincere effort to reach answers that are something akin to truth. Was it objective? Putin and his supporters would no doubt answer with a resounding no. They would likely prefer to have the president of the Russian Federation interviewed on an infomercial couch by a conditioned, hand-picked loyalist. That’s what would help them sell their message.
But, of course, it would not be real news.
Jim Slusher, [email protected], is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher