I asked veteran MSMer Nancy Gibbs, co-author with Michael Duffy of the wonderful The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham In The White House, and long-time Time Magazine writer, about last night’s debate (transcript here):
HH: I think Rudy did fine, too. I’m going to the question of can you imagine a mainstream media journalist doing that, asking that question, even without the Bible, but even with the Bible in your hand? Can you imagine anyone in MSM doing that?
NG: Well, you know, what we have seen, I think, are questions where religious belief directly enters into a political issue, how do you feel about the teaching of intelligent design in schools, you know, when you have issues that are religious in nature, but are also being debated in legislatures, and are matters of political discussion. Then of course you imagine any kind of journalist asking candidates where they come down on those political debates. You know, the stem cell debate has been infused…the abortion, obviously, the death penalty, these are all policy debates that for many voters and candidates, have a religious element to them. But what was fascinating about the question was it was a purely religious question about people’s personal theology and belief system.
NG: And in that sense, no, I don’t think it’s something that a journalist would feel was appropriate or relevant to ask.
HH: So if that’s the standard of journalism, let’s think about this out loud. Why is that the standard in journalism, Nancy Gibbs?
NG: That, you mean, that that should not be asked?
HH: Yeah, that a journalist would be uncomfortable asking that. Why would they, what’s behind that standard, because I agree with you 100%. You would never find a reputable journalist asking that question.
NG: I think because, and this is where the whole YouTube format is interesting, is should there be different rules for what voters want to know, because I guess in a democracy, my feeling is a voter should be able to ask anything they want.
NG: A voter has the right to want to know anything about a candidate, and judge a candidate on any terms they choose to judge.
NG: That’s, you know, how the game is played. So you know, the reason I think a mainstream journalist would not be as likely to is because probing the particular personal theology of a candidate on issues that are entirely independent of their conduct in public life for the office for which they are running does not seem to be relevant. I mean, there’s a whole list of issues that we think it’s not appropriate or relevant for journalists to ask, and I think that that question about do you believe the Bible to be literally true, do you believe in the Bible, with no political implication attached to it, is not an appropriate question.
HH: And I think behind that is a sort of inherited belief that religious divisions are dangerous, and that they ought to be, that good journalism does not fan them unnecessarily. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, you’re covering a civil war between Shia and Sunni, you’re going to have to explore it. But this unnecessarily divides Americans across lines that we’ve always thought is useful not to be divided on.
NG: Well, I would be tempted then to quote Galatians right back to the questioner last night, or to say the Bible itself says that you’re not to be sowing division and discord. And so there was something about, I think, the way the question was framed, that it’s exactly what you’re saying. It felt as though it was designed to divide more than to…
HH: Illuminate. And given that, CNN exercised editorial judgment when they selected that question. I wonder, do you agree with me that they own that question? They made the choice. CNN asked that question, because they didn’t draw these out of a hat. A random selection would be different. But when you’ve got a total of twenty of these things, or twenty-five of these things out of 5,000, they thought it was important to put that question up there. Do they own the question, Nancy Gibbs?
NG: Well, that’s a great question. I think you know, given the fact that by the end of the night we hadn’t had a question about Pakistan, even though we’ve all been watching that closely now for weeks, we didn’t have questions about Iran. There were so many topics that weren’t covered, it’s very easy to say how could that question make your cut when so many other very serious topics didn’t. I guess what CNN would say in their defense is that for a lot of voters, that question about candidates’ approach to the Bible is a very relevant and important one, and that exactly because it’s a question that is now, like we’re in the hall of mirrors, but because it’s a question that the mainstream media, as you say, or any journalist of any kind would be unlikely to ask, but one that a lot of voters might want to hear the answer to, that that’s precisely the type of question that the YouTube debate format allows to be delivered directly to the candidate. Now I don’t know if that justifies their doing it. I don’t…but I think it is precisely because in a traditional debate, where the questioners or journalists, you wouldn’t get that question, that they may have been, in many cases, in all these YouTube debates, been looking for questions that are precisely because they fall somewhere outside the normal parameters of debate questions.
HH: Now have you been following the controversy about CNN all day today?
NG: Oh, yeah.
HH: And I just had Tom Brokaw on. I played it, I’ll talk to him for two hours on Tuesday about Boom!, but he blames Klein. He says Klein owns it, and that it’s a terrible thing to let plants get in there, and to have Hillary advisors there. You’re an MSM’er for a long time. A lot of people across the political spectrum admire your work. Aren’t you embarrassed by what happened last night?
NG: Oh, and I think CNN’s embarrassed. I mean, you could tell first thing this morning that this was just hugely embarrassing for them, and they said, you know, that they had checked about who he had contributed money to, but somehow don’t come out with the fact that he’s a Clinton advisor. Given the fact, I guess what surprises me about it, I’m always disinclined to assume conspiracy theories, mainly because as you say, I’ve worked at a big news organization that owns CNN, along with a million other things. And I don’t think we’re capable of pulling off a conspiracy is one reason I never believe the conspiracy theories. But there is sloppiness, and a lack of rigor that I think this demonstrated.