In Trump Era, Uncompromising TV News Should Be the Norm, Not the Exception

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Too often television news, especially on cable, serves as a megaphone for politicians who use it to forward lies and propaganda while so effortlessly ignoring questions they’re supposedly there to answer.

But every now and then, there are those happy exceptions.

One came at precisely 4:01 p.m. on Tuesday.

That was when the CNN anchor Jake Tapper began asking Vice President-elect Mike Pence about connections between the Trump transition team and Michael G. Flynn, the son of the incoming national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn.

The younger Mr. Flynn had recently used Twitter to legitimize the false story that the Clintons and their allies were running a child sex trafficking ring out of the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington. He did so hours after a man stormed the place with an AR-15 assault rifle in search of the nonexistent sex ring. (A week later I still have to ask, did I really just write that sentence?)

That morning, Mr. Pence had said on the MSNBC show “Morning Joe” that the younger Mr. Flynn had “no involvement in the transition whatsoever,” and that was that.

But, it turned out, the younger Mr. Flynn was in fact aiding his father on the transition — at least until later that day, when President-elect Donald J. Trump put an end to it. And, CNN was reporting, the transition team had even sought to get Mr. Flynn’s son a security clearance, for access to sensitive information.

When Mr. Tapper asked Mr. Pence whether he was aware of the security clearance request, Mr. Pence dodged. “I’m aware in talking to General Flynn that his son was helping with scheduling,” he said.

“But you put in for security clearance for him,” Mr. Tapper said.

“He was helping his dad,” Mr. Pence said, “but that’s no longer the case.”

And so it went eight times, as Mr. Tapper repeated the question and Mr. Pence accused him of pursuing “a distraction” and tried to change the subject. “I want to move on to other issues,” Mr. Tapper told him, “but I’m afraid I just didn’t get an answer.”

Mr. Tapper called it an example of how he had been trying to “draw basic lines about truth and decency and trying to get answers to questions.”

As such, it was an object lesson in what doing it right looks like. At the same time, it was all very basic, what reporters are supposed to do: Ask questions of people in power and insist on answers.

But it bounced around the internet as a shining example of stand-up journalism, because, unfortunately, such moments now seem so rare — especially in a year marked by Matt Lauer’s soft interview of Mr. Trump at NBC’s “Commander in Chief” forum in September, and CNN’s own lapses with hires like the Trump aide Corey Lewandowski.

If only such moments could stop being so special and start being normal.

Television news is going to have to do its part should Mr. Trump and his administration try to make policy based on false assertions, the same way he used them on the campaign trail. (And, yes, television will have to be just as vigilant should Mr. Trump’s opponents use falsehoods to fight him, too.)

The same holds for all of the news media, of course. But live television can be a safe harbor for falsehood and deflection.

It’s easy for me to criticize as a columnist who has time to analyze and fact-check before writing. On television, in real time, even the best-prepared interviewers may have neither the time nor the facts to catch a lie and call it out. Even when they do, their attempts to call foul can turn into stalemates if the interviewee insists on continuing to forward something that’s false or unsubstantiated, which seems to be the latest craze (see Reince Priebus, millions of illegal votes, “Face the Nation”).

But, as Mr. Tapper told me, in this “year in which basic facts and basic decency are at risk, persistence is important at the end of the day.”

It can mean losing bookings and therefore ratings, given that politicians who face real grilling may be inclined to avoid the kitchens that cooked them — a risk worth taking.

Hillary Clinton did not grant Mr. Tapper another interview after a sit-down in May, when he pressed her on her dearth of news conferences. (In an email, divulged by WikiLeaks, the Clinton adviser John Podesta once called Mr. Tapper a word for the male anatomy not suitable for print.)

And Mr. Trump never came back after his interview with Mr. Tapper in June, when the anchor tried 23 separate times to get a direct answer about his comments regarding the Mexican heritage of the judge in the civil case against Trump University

Mr. Tapper said some of his competitors, whom he did not name, had gone easy on interview subjects to ensure future access. “We’re not supposed to be providing people in power with safe spaces,” he said.

Mr. Tapper did not invent the tough interview. George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz of ABC, Chuck Todd of NBC, Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly of Fox News, and John Dickerson of CBS have all had their moments.

And none has yet claimed the mantles of Tim Russert and Ted Koppel, feared interviewers who combined tough styles with incomparable levels of preparation.

You can only imagine how Mr. Russert would have handled Katrina Pierson, the Trump campaign’s national spokeswoman, when she incorrectly asserted on CNN that it was President Obama who invaded Afghanistan, or what short work Mr. Koppel would have made of Mr. Lewandowski in August when he repeated the tired fake claim that Mr. Obama wasn’t born here.

Then again, you would have to wonder whether they would have booked such interview subjects — or hired them — in the first place.

CNN was host to such nonsense enough that Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post felt compelled to ask Jeffrey A. Zucker, CNN’s president, at a panel discussion two weeks ago, “At what point do you say, ‘You can’t come on our air anymore’?”

In an interview with me on Friday, Mr. Zucker defended those appearances by saying that they represented Mr. Trump’s worldview, and that his anchors were there to keep them honest and did.

For all the criticism CNN has received, it did introduce more aggressive fact-checking into its reportage, including using onscreen banners known as chyrons to note when something was false, which all networks will hopefully use more frequently.

Going forward into the Trump era, Mr. Zucker said, “the key for us” will be “to make sure that we hold the administration’s feet to the fire, hold them accountable — not presuppose that anything is wrong or bad, but not be intimidated and not be afraid to call things out.”

He pointed to the recent flare-up involving the CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny — a former New York Times colleague — who said Mr. Trump’s claim that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally was “blatant and baseless,” which prompted a Twitter tirade from the president-elect.

The spirit seems to be going around. On Sunday, Mr. Todd persistently pressed Mr. Priebus on “Meet the Press” about allegations that Russia meddled in the election. The week before, when Mr. Pence told Mr. Stephanopoulos that Mr. Trump’s claim about illegal voting was “refreshing,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said, “Why is it refreshing to make false statements?”

The tête-à-tête earned Mr. Stephanopoulos a mock honor, “The Crapcatcher Award,” from the “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, who also gave one to Mr. Tapper.

Real progress will come when solid and uncompromising television journalism doesn’t need to be recognized with trophies. The times demand it.