A Star Is Boring

The problem with the Sarah Palin-Charlie Gibson sit-down

Tonight, the first part of Charles Gibson’s exclusive interview with Sarah Palin will air on ABC. While some media folk are wagering that Gibson will ask Palin some difficult questions—about her record in state government, about the veracity of some of her comments, about her faith and its interplay with politics, even about her family—others are not so sure. The New Republic’s Jason Zengerle imagines that Gibson’s style will be more like Barbara Walters than George Stephanopoulos. Josh Marshall remarks that agreeing to Palin’s terms (come to Alaska, stay for several days, conduct a series of sit-down interviews) “is a form of self-gelding” and predicts that the result will be “unwatchable.”

The critics’ preemptive lament, suggesting that they think the interview will be far from journalistic, shines a spotlight on the broadcast news paradox. To score the coveted get, networks parade their brightest stars, the household names that practically guarantee high viewership. (In this view, Zengerle’s comment likening Gibson to Barbara Walters is legitimate enough.) But by that same token, those network news stars have public images they must maintain; unless you’re Joan Rivers, or unless you’re on cable, where accusatory voices thrive, it doesn’t necessarily pay to come across as disagreeable—even if, reportorially, it’s what the situation demands.

This is what’s inherently problematic about power interviewing power. Sure, the Interview Magazine celebrity-on-celebrity interview model has its inarguably appealing aspects: the thrill of seeing two stars collide; or, for instance, how Your Own Favorite News Personality interacts with The Nation’s Fresh Political Personality. But both sides are unlikely to ask and answer tough, uncomfortable questions. (Do you believe in evolution? Do you believe a teenaged girl like Bristol should be given a choice regarding an unwanted pregnancy?) Deference and politesse are usually the rule when power interviews power, as is a tacit prohibition against saying what you really think. For example, although Bill O’Reilly is fond of loudly arguing with guests with whom he disagrees, his recent interview with Barack Obama was unsurprisingly decorous.

But that’s not to say that the rules of the game shouldn’t at times be broken. In this case, Gibson needs to show that the media will hold Palin accountable for inaccurate statements that she’s made repeatedly on the campaign trail, by pushing her for solid, substantive answers and laying out the facts for a national viewership. If that breaks the devil’s bargain of mutual softballing and makes him look “mean” to certain viewers, then so be it.

After all, journalists (even high profile broadcasters) shouldn’t be nervous about appearing like an asshole on occasion. It’s the journalistic imperative to keep one’s eyes on the prize and, when needed, take a hit for the sake of the public’s need to know.

Admittedly, this is a harder task for TV journalists than for their print counterparts. Print journalists can ask tough questions with fewer repercussions, because even hotshots of this stripe are still mostly known as bylines on a page. But to achieve success, well-known broadcasters trade as much on their images as on their reportorial abilities, a public quality they share with many an interview subject. In the image maintenance game, they are not exactly on opposing teams.

Gibson is beholden to the structure that has helped shape his reputation—and that structure maintains that certain limitations are inevitable if an interview with a high-profile figure is to be had. And that’s why the criticisms are directed less at Gibson’s reportorial prowess, than at the journalistic impotence born of the restrictions imposed by the interview genre itself.

This is the first interview that Sarah Palin has given, and there are no guarantees that there will be more interviews to come—which is why tonight’s interview needs to be more than a glorified photo opportunity. We will see if we get walks along the beach, or barring that, a display of Alaskan lighting, harnessed at times of the day when its hues most complement the facial features of both interviewer and interviewee. Like children prying open the paper doors of Advent calendars, we will see bits and pieces of the results on ABC’s various shows, starting Thursday night and continuing throughout Friday: a baby here, some candlelight there. If it turns out that in toto the pieces add up to a predictable picture, the conclusion may very well be that the formula of double star power doesn’t always sell the big get.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.