NEVADA — All day long Tuesday, Las Vegas’s CBS affiliate, KLAS-TV, touted its exclusive, one-on-one interview with President Obama. In on-air promotions, it was labeled “Paula and the President,” a reference to the station’s veteran anchor, Paula Francis, who was dispatched to Washington, D.C. on relatively short notice for her eight-minute interview. (Disclosure: I worked as special projects producer at KLAS-TV from 1998 to 2003.)
If KLAS-TV was hoping to break news, the station was likely disappointed. Still, Francis brought to the White House and queried the president on some of Nevadans’ key concerns—a mission arguably more important than unearthing a scoop.
As Francis appropriately explained in her live report from D.C., the topic of the interview—the housing crisis (read: the president’s latest housing proposals)—was predetermined by the White House Press Office. KLAS, Francis noted, was among four TV stations (the others are in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Tampa) that were granted back-to-back presidential interviews on Tuesday. The White House has arranged such sit-downs before for TV stations that otherwise would not have direct access to a sitting president—and often hail from electorally important states. (Recall back in November, anchors from Florida, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, among others, were granted interviews with the president as he tried, as CJR’s Erika Fry wrote, “to pitch the administration’s American Jobs Act to the public.”)
According to Francis, her managing editor got the invitation to the White House last Friday, and given that southern Nevada is the acknowledged epicenter of the housing crisis—with roughly 80 percent of homeowners upside down on their mortgages—the newsroom bosses leapt at the chance. For KLAS, the timing was perfect; their I-Team just recently aired an in-depth series that’s worth a watch, “Desert Underwater.”
Francis spent the weekend doing homework for the interview. The questions she asked were good ones:
In Nevada, of course, one of our biggest problems, unemployment, but also foreclosures. Now you’ve had several programs—three programs now—that have sort of been a drop in the bucket. And the latest mortgage settlement is starting to look a little more hopeful, but people are worried. And the number one thing people say to me is, ‘Why do you have to be delinquent on your mortgage?”
The other thing that people say to me is that the banks are getting a free ride. They’re not being prosecuted, they’re not suffering in any way. I found a graph of deferred prosecution agreements that showed that bank prosecutions have declined since 1998 and that they continue to decline in your administration. Isn’t this the time to turn that around and do more prosecutions?
The president’s answers, with an election looming, were the safe and predictable. Obama called the letters he receives from suffering homeowners “heartbreaking stuff,” but then echoed the positions of his Republican opponents when he noted that the problem can’t be solved with a stroke of his pen. Said the president:
The government can’t solve this problem all by itself because there’s so many homes. You’re talking about trillions of dollars in home values and there’s just not enough money to plug that entire hole.
The closest the interview got to breaking new ground was when the president, in response to the question about bank prosecutions, noted that wrong-doers may still “be on the hook” following the settlement with banks that used robo-signers to force foreclosures.
It is a very narrow settlement, but it means $25 billion of additional resources going to homeowners to help them. It leaves open the possibility, and probability, of prosecutions for people who were engaging in some other terrible practices that help get us into this mess in the first place.
The anchor, perhaps not surprisingly, found herself without ample time to fire off her planned follow-up questions. After Obama’s answer about the potential for prosecutions, she told him, “I have to edit out a couple of questions because I just got the high sign [to wrap it up] from Josh,” a reference to Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The comment didn’t end up on air, but appears in the unedited interview posted on the TV station’s website (and below). Francis’s good questions were, understandably but unfortunately for viewers, parceled out in bits over the course of KLAS’s three newscasts Tuesday night, compressing what was already a compressed conversation.
Putting further pressure on the White House’s message, KLAS-TV, to its credit, also aired portions of an interview with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, conducted on Tuesday by satellite (and also available in full online).
While viewers only saw pieces of the Obama and Priebus interviews, the news producers found air time for Francis to share that she’d managed to sneak a peek at the spot (formerly a White House swimming pool) where JFK is alleged to have had an until-recently-secret tryst—and, in another newscast, that she’d snagged a souvenir box of M&Ms bearing the Presidential seal.