Television as Tribunal

What today's reporters can learn from Frost/Nixon

Earlier this month, President Bush sat down with ABC News’s Charlie Gibson for the first of a series “exit interviews” conducted with TV news programs. The moment of reckoning began with a series of stately images of the president waving to a crowd as he boarded his Marine One helicopter.

“I’m glad to give you a ride on the magic carpet,” Bush quipped to Gibson before boarding the chopper. “Frankly, it’s one of the great luxuries of the presidency.” The two men spent the half-hour ride to Camp David discussing how the White House was “homier” than one might expect and chuckling about how the president likes to put his feet up on antique White House furniture.

After disclaiming responsibility for the current recession, Bush tried to reassure Gibson that the presidency wasn’t too hard on him: “I think people look at the White House and say, oh, man, what a miserable experience it is to be president. You know, it’s a lot of noise, a lot of criticism, a lot of name calling, a lot of this, a lot of that. Some days we’re not so happy. Some days, happy. Every day has been pretty joyous, though.”

That’s right: the same president who is currently presiding over two wars and one of the worst economic crises in American history has just seen fit to describe every day of his presidency as “joyous.” And Gibson let him get away with it.

As the American people increasingly look towards the incoming Obama administration for leadership, President Bush has grown increasingly elusive and unaccountable. His public response to the financial crisis has consisted of little more than a series of “cuckoo clock”-style press conferences—scant on details and culpability. The Bush exit interviews represent one of the last opportunities to publicly question the embattled, controversial president. Yet in the kickoff interview, ABC News seemed content to let Bush blather about how all the problems his administration created will not be attributed to him in the history books.

Richard Nixon similarly attempted to rewrite history in 1977, when he granted an exclusive interview to British TV talk show host David Frost. After three years of secluded, post-resignation exile, Nixon was looking to redeem his public image. His publicist, Swifty Lazar, knew a memoir wouldn’t do the trick. Nixon needed to reach the masses; and that meant he needed television. The film Frost/Nixon, which opened in wide release last week, demonstrates exactly how today’s news programs could utilize the strengths of television to demand accountability from an unpopular, closely guarded president—and bolster their journalistic creds in the process.

Like Nixon, David Frost was also seeking redemption. His New York-based talk show had been recently canceled, which left him consigned to a career of cheap human interest stories and Houdini-like stunts on the proto-reality show Great Escapes. The interview did not seem like much of a gamble for Nixon—Frost had no serious background in political journalism and agreed to pay $600,000 for access to the former president. The American news networks wanted nothing to do with this brazen act of checkbook journalism and refused to distribute the program, which forced Frost and a group of investors to syndicate the series themselves. Going into the interview, Nixon seemed confident that he could easily burnish his public image by outfoxing this fluff-ball journalist.

Anyone familiar with the Frost/Nixon interviews knows that they rank among the greatest public confessions in American political history. But people may not know that for the first twenty-one hours of tape, Nixon completely controlled the agenda: he turned questions about bombing campaigns in Cambodia into descriptions of how “the American people simply didn’t understand Vietnam” and tried to characterize the moment that he knelt on the floor of the Oval Office in prayer with Henry Kissinger as a moment of innocuous reflection between two religious men.

David Frost knew he did not have the chops to take on Nixon alone. That was why he recruited veteran ABC News producer Bob Zelnick and longtime Nixon nemesis James Reston to undertake a rigorous evaluation of Watergate minutiae in the weeks prior to the interview. It was Reston’s shoe-leather journalism that allowed Frost to commandeer the interview by revealing the details of a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson, proving that Nixon obstructed justice.

In the weeks before his interview, Frost boned up on Watergate background and conducted regular role-playing drills with his seasoned research team. Frost knew where Nixon would try to steer the conversation, and prepared informational bombshells to launch at every turn. But Frost also succeeded because of his emotional intelligence. Throughout the final interview, he was able to read Nixon’s expressions, sense his discomfort, and coax “a cascade of candor” out of America’s most secretive president.

Toward the end of Frost/Nixon, Reston (a career print journalist) extolled the “reductive power of television:” Yes, David Frost elicited Nixon’s first public mea culpa. But more importantly: he got Nixon’s face—Nixon’s swollen, tortured face. That was what solidified public consciousness, and that was a story no other journalist could get. Nixon’s entire presidency was reduced to that face.

ABC News’ Martha Raddatz demonstrated television’s reductive power in her Tuesday follow-up interview with the president, as Bush pretended to shrug off the fact that an Iraqi journalist had just thrown a shoe at him. “It’s a sign of a free society,” he said. “It’s also considered a huge insult,” Raddatz retorted. Bush attempted to belittle the act as just a “guy who wanted to get on TV,” but his discomposure was sufficiently visible that it mattered little what he said. Unfortunately for him, as for Nixon, images can speak louder than words.

The American people are not demanding the same kind of remorse from Bush that was expected from Nixon. But that is no reason to squander exclusive access to the president with flat-footed questions about “uh-oh moments” and White House furniture. If the network news programs are serious about reclaiming their ever-declining audiences, they are going to have to prove that they know how to use this access. A few months ago, Gibson’s questioning of Sarah Palin helped turn the tide of public opinion against the vice presidential candidate. Gibson and his network news counterparts did not, however, ask detailed, complex questions; they used the very same instincts that Frost employed to manipulate Nixon. Does President Bush “agree with the Bush doctrine?” Could he explain what it is?

It is unlikely today that Bush would grant twenty-eight hours of interview time to anyone. But modern TV journalists do have the advantage of years spent covering the president. Bush’s style is predictable and his talking points well-worn. The American people do not need another “getting to know you” interview with the president. After eight years in office, we are aware of the fact that he enjoys Camp David and knows how to crack a joke. In other words, the president may be very, very lame. But that does not mean the exit interviews have to be.

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Sacha Evans is a writer in New York.