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Welker Blew It

There is a pretty famous story about Lyndon B. Johnson—we've surely mentioned it before—and his dealings with a reporter who was asking about the Vietnam War. "Why are we at war in Vietnam?" was the reporter's question. LBJ at first gave an answer based on geopolitics and fighting communism. The reporter was not persuaded, and repeated the question. The second time, LBJ gave an answer based on the importance of promoting and spreading the American way of life. The reporter was still not persuaded, and asked again. At this point, a frustrated LBJ unzipped his pants, extracted "Jumbo" (Johnson's name for his... well, Johnson), pointed at it, and said "THIS is why we are at war in Vietnam." The reporter did not ask again, so apparently answer #3 addressed the question.

We tell this story as an example of journalistic persistence, which is something that was in short supply during Kristen Welker's Meet the Press interview of Donald Trump. Oh, she called the former president out on the occasional lie, and she re-asked a couple of questions that he deflected, but in general she let him take the lead, and she chose not to challenge many, many things that should have been challenged.

We are far from the only ones who were underwhelmed. Here are the money quotes from a few of the many scathing reviews:

Undoubtedly not the way Welker wanted to start her new job.

In fairness, NBC should never, ever have allowed that interview to happen. Trump is the most difficult interview going right now, and maybe the most difficult interview in the history of American politics. He hasn't got the slightest compunction about lying, he's divorced from reality as most of the rest of us understand it, and he's got the media savvy you would expect of someone who's been on camera on a regular basis for more than 50 years. Sending a rookie into the lion's den like that, in order to start Welker's Meet the Press tenure with a bang, was indefensible.

We are not suggesting, of course, that we could have done better. The standard interview approach, where numerous subjects are addressed, and where the journalist tries to be fair and impartial, clearly does not work with Trump. It didn't work back in 2016, and now Trump has built up another 7 years' worth of confidence in his reality-bending approach.

If we had to develop a battle plan for interviewing him, we'd start with the assumption that it's not possible to fact-check him, and that asking his opinions on things is not useful, since he's just going to produce mountains of B.S. The weakest spot in his armor is on policy, and his tendency to dance his way past any sort of firm commitment on any sort of firm position on the issues. If we were told we had to interview Donald Trump tomorrow, we would pick a single issue—say, abortion—and the only goal of the interview would be to get an answer as to what Trump's position on that subject will be. That means coming into the interview armed with a bunch of questions like these:

Clearly, there is some element here of "get the subject off his game, so he says something unwise... and truthful" here. Credit the scene from A Few Good Men where Col. Nathan Jessup is on the stand for inspiration. This might not be appropriate for any other interview, but since Trump enters interviews with non-fawning media with the assumption that it's an adversarial process, it's necessary to meet fire with fire.

We also have another idea. It may seem nutty, so bear with us. If a media outlet lands an interview with Trump, then they should engage the services of a guest interviewer, namely... Howard Stern. Stern is not only a master interviewer who has decades of experience puncturing celebrity armor, he's also interviewed Trump more times than probably anyone on the planet. And even if ABC News or CNN or MSNBC isn't willing to put Stern on the air under these circumstances (though it would get HUGE ratings), then they should pay him whatever he wants to consult and coach the person who actually will conduct the interview.

Alternatively, if the non-fawning media are not willing to accept that the rules for interviewing Donald Trump are different from those for a normal politician or news figure, and to adapt in response, then they just shouldn't interview Trump at all. No need to give him a bunch more earned media that does nobody but Trump any good. (Z)

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