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An Hour of PR Masquerading as an Interview

Reported by Nancy - December 15, 2005 -

Last night (12/14), Special Report was all about Brit Hume's interview with President George W Bush. The interview itself would have been a fairly decent example of decent journalism on Hume's part (his snide, nasty persona was entirely absent) but FNC made a curious decision. Rather than treating the interview like a serious news event & simply airing it in its entirety, uncut & unedited, FNC chose instead to treat it like a sporting event, complete with multiple teasers, pre-game cheerleading, & post-game analysis.

The program led off with a report from Carl Cameron that was allegedly about Bush's speech on Wed, but was more of an extended teaser for the Bush-Hume interview. Cameron included 5 separate clips of the interview & only one of the speech. Cameron also included clips on Sen Harry Reid (D-NV) & Rep Jim Marshall (D-GA). Other than this, & a brief report from Brian Wilson about Katrina relief funds, the entire program was devoted to the Bush-Hume interview.

At 6:07pm Hume a read teaser: Bush interview (with clip of same)

[Comment: I'm not going to bother detailing Bush's responses. This is about Hume's interview style & technique, not about Bush.]

The first segment that Special Report aired was at 6:11pm, after Hume noted that the interview took place in Bush's study. Hume asked about Bush's relationship with Rumsfeld ("Secretary Rumfeld -- how does he stand with you?") & followed up by asking, "is he [Rumsfeld] here to stay?" Hume then moved on to Bush's relationship with VP Dick Cheney (noting that there were rumors that "he isn't quite the respected adviser he once was to you.") & followed up, when Bush's answer was rambling, by asking specifically whether that relationship was "unchanged." Hume then moved on to Bush's relationship with Karl Rove, noting that Rove "went through some trials & tribulations." There was no follow-up question about Rover.

Hume then moved on to Congress, noting that "Democrats say there is a culture of corruption among Republicans in Congress" & specifically mentioning Rep Tom DeLay (R-TX), lobbyist Jack Abramoff, & former Rep Duke Cunningham (R-CA). After Bush commented on Abramoff & Cunningham, Hume asked 3 questions about DeLay:
1) "Do you hope & expect that Ton DeLay will return to be majority leader?"
2) "What is your judgement of the prosecutor in the case, Ronnie Earle?"
3) "Do you believe he's [DeLau] innocent?"

That ended this segment of the interview, then Hume read another teaser (more of the interview, with clip of same).

At 6:19pm it was back to the interview. This segment was clearly designed to portray Bush in the best possible light, offering softball questions that included flattery, opinion & spin. Hume began with a focus on Bush's political activity over the past 4 months. He said that Bush had made a "decision after the election to try to be above the political fray" & had been subjected to a "withering attack on the use of prewar intelligence," then observed that Bush had been "remarkably passive for a long time" & finally asked "Why was that?" After Bush rambled on for a bit, Hume followed up by asking, "Tell me about the decision that was made to change all that ... to fire back ... how was that decision made, what triggered it?"

Hume then moved on to one of Bush's recent speeches, noting that Bush had said there have been "30,000 Iraqi casualties" & asking "Where did you get the number -- 30,000?" Hume didn't attempt a follow-up or try to pin down Bush's evasiveness (Bush said that number "has been floating around the public, been in the press" & nobody "knows the exact number").

Hume moved on to the war in Iraq, noting that it was "widely said that there were some critical errors made in the early going" & citing the disbanding of the Iraqi military & "de-Baathification" as examples. He then asked "If you had known then what you know now would you have made the same decision?" When Bush said yes, Hume followed up with a more specific question: "If the weapons had been out of the equation ... it was still the right call?" Hume wrapped up this section by asking "Wha worries you most about Iraq?"

For his final topic in this segment, Hume said, "One last country: Iran." This wasn't a question, but Bush answered anyhow. Hume eventually asked 3 question about Iran:
1) "So what do you do?"
2) "What's your objective?"
3) "So for the current rulers of that country ...?"

At the end of this segment, Hume informed viewers that the photograph visible in the background was of Bush's grandmother, then read another teaser (more of the interview). Following an ad break, headlines, the Grapevine, & Wilson's brief report about Katrina relief funds, there was another teaser (more of the interview).

For the last segment of the interview, Hume asked a series of more personal questions:
1) "Tell me about this room."
2) "So you're up here not only in the evenings but during the daytime?"
3) "And talk to me a little bit about -- this room is redolent of past presidents. Are there any in particular ... that you think about a lot?"
4) "What about your faith, sir, how is that a factor in your life now?"
5) "Well, there are people, as you know, Mr President, who believe that you were chosen, at this time, to do this thing. What about that?"
6) "Let me get your thoughts, Mr President, on how you think or hope you'll be remembered."

At 6:46pm Hume read a final teaser: the All-Stars will "go over that interview with fine-tooth combs." And at 6:50pm the "All-Stars" (Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke & Mara Liasson) spent the next few minutes of the program re-interpreting Bush's answers to Hume's questions. [comment: Need I say that they were all just thrilled & there were no fine-tooth combs?]

Comments: It was impossible to tell if the segments of the interview were aired in the order in which they actually occurred, or how much (if any) editing had been done. One would expect that such an interview would be aired in full, unedited, the way FNC normally covers most Bush "events," The fact that it was chopped up into multiple segments leads me to suspect there may have been a fair amount of editing, including some possible do-overs.

The most fascinating part of this whole interview, for me, was Hume's relative professionalism, a pale echo of his pre-FOX career. He displayed none of the facial tics (e.g., sneer, curled lip, raised eyebrow) or vocal shticks (e.g., tones of incredulity or disbelief) that are his stock in trade on Special Report. His questions were largely softballs & didn't challenge Bush or any of his answers. Perhaps more importantly, Hume chose to include a whole series of extremely softball questions (the last segment aired) about personal issues, rather than tougher questions about more important issues (like the economy).

In Hume's defense, Bush can't be the easiest subject to interview. He's smug, he rambles, he smirks, he laughs inappropriately, he thinks he's clever when he's not, he mangles the language (he made a mess of Abramoff's name, pronouncing it something like "Abramamoff," & yes, he said "nukuler"). Still, Hume could have done better. He could have eliminated the flattery & puffery, toughened up the softball questions, & asked more direct follow-ups when Bush didn't answer the first time around.

NOTE TO READERS: Please stay on topic (Hume's interview technique, & how it differed from his usual persona on Special Report). I repeat: this is NOT about Bush. O/T comments will be deleted. Thanks.