“In an election year dominated by the economy and typical political rhetoric that you hear from both parties, I was surprised to see the issue of drones brought up, especially since it is very popular with the American public,” Johnsen said. “This is an important issue that is largely overlooked, with the exception of only a few national media outlets.”
And Joshua Foust, a fellow with the nonpartisan think tank American Security Project who is leading a new study on the use of drones, said Swann highlighted the subject very capably.
“He raised these issues directly with the president, which few national security reporters have done. He was definitely asking the right kinds of questions,” said Foust, who is also a correspondent at The Atlantic and a former CJR contributor. “In terms of national reporting, I’d like to see more of this in the national press. Actually getting officials on the record is becoming more and more rare.”
The direct questioning of Obama is what made this interview go viral, but this week’s segment was just the latest in a series of kill list-related stories Swann has covered for more than a year, including the first failed attempt by the U.S. to take out Awlaki; the subsequent killing of Awlaki and a companion, Samir Khan, who was also an American; an exploration of the constitutionality of the president ordering the killing of a U.S. citizen; a segment related to other national reports about the kill list, and comments made by former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich during a debate. That history of reporting likely equipped him with the traits that Friedersdorf of The Atlantic observed in the Obama interview: “deep knowledge, reflection, logical analysis, and a willingness to challenge authority.”
Swann, who has been with the Cincinnati station for about 18 months, does three Reality Checks a week, often using the segments to bring added scrutiny to political rhetoric. The segment has a national and international following with viewers in 30 countries, he told me, and he has more than 42,000 followers on his Facebook page.
“We look at issues other media is not looking at,” Swann said. “This has been a question discussed in the past and we had a lot of people talking about it. There’s been an enormous concern about the drone programs and a lot of issues go to the constitutionality.”
If his goal was to spur more discussion, he succeeded.
“People have been quick to push back and say we should not have asked the question in the first place. A lot of vitriol came out,” Swann said. “The responses have been very interesting, but nationally they have been very positive.”
Though he had a chance to interview Obama because of the presidential campaign, Swann does not see the drone strategy of the kill list as a partisan issue, since both parties appear to support the concept. But there is an important underlying question, he said.
“There is a fast growing presidential power in this country and many people believe it is unconstitutional,” he said. “Journalists have to call out politicians on these kinds of issues, but journalism has become [accused of being] so partisan now, if you call anyone out you are automatically pushed into the other camp.
“That is redefining media, but we hope to break through that,” Swann said.
It’s a truism that local TV news gives little attention to complicated issues. Set something on fire, and the camera crews flock. So it’s refreshing to see a TV reporter hold politicians’ feet to the fire, explaining how leaders try to skirt accountability while also trying to broaden the news agenda. And it’s refreshing to see that when a reporter does that, people notice. Broadcasters, and other journalists at every level, should take note.