The art of the interview
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On Nov. 16 of last year, U.S. President Donald Trump sat down with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace at the White House to discuss a wide range of issues from his two years in office. By then, it was no secret that Fox News was Trump’s ally.
That did not mean Wallace would go easy on him. A part of their conversation roughly went like this:
Wallace: In 2017, last year, you tweeted this, and I want to quote it accurately: ‘The fake news is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people.’
Trump: That’s true, 100 percent. Not the media.
But there have been people who have been critical of other presidents. John Kennedy, in your Oval Office, canceled the subscription to The New York Herald-Tribune. Nobody called it the enemy of the American people.
Chris, I’m calling the fake news is the enemy. It’s fake. It’s phony.
But a lot of times, sir, it’s just news you don’t like.
No it’s not, no. No. I don’t mind getting bad news if I’m wrong.
But sir, leaders in authoritarian countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, now repress the media using your words.
I can’t talk for other people. I can only talk for me.
But you’re seen around the world as a beacon for repression.
I’m totally in favor of the media. I’m totally in favor of the free press, got to be fair press.
But the president [doesn’t] get to decide what’s fair and what’s not.
Most of it is bias. I’m not calling you that.
I’m talking about, we’re all together. It doesn’t matter whether you call, but when you call CNN and The New York Times and — we, we’re in solidarity, sir.
An air of tension grew between Trump and Wallace. But it did not stop Wallace from asking tough questions. And that’s what interviews are all about.
Last week, Song Hyun-jung, a reporter from KBS, created a ruckus on the internet after her interview of President Moon Jae-in was aired live to mark his second anniversary in office. Moon supporters claimed she “interrupted” him 28 times as he spoke during the 80-minute-long exclusive interview. They also attacked her for referring to him as a “dictator,” which in fact was a quote from opposition lawmakers, and for a grimace she made as he was talking.
First, for the record, neither Song nor Moon said they were upset with the other after the interview.
Second, a reporter can make a call when to cut off an interviewee since live television can’t wait forever for the interviewee to finish talking about an issue irrelevant to the question. In the interview between Trump and Wallace, an unedited version of the transcript shows that Wallace “interrupted” Trump 16 times in just six minutes and 42 seconds of that specific excerpt about fake news. By percentage, that’s seven times more than Song’s interview with Moon.
Third, there’s no such thing as an inappropriate question. When Wallace interviewed Trump last year, he called Trump a “beacon of repression” without citing a third person. When former U.S. President Barack Obama boasted about signing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal during a press conference with White House correspondents and opened the floor for questions, CBS News’s Major Garrett said, “As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges that, according to your administration, one whereabouts unknown.” He then asked, “Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?”
It is so obvious that, in a democratic nation like Korea, a reporter can ask critical questions to a president. Applauding reporters who ask easy questions fit in a repressive regime like North Korea.
The issue is whether Song asked questions that the public wanted to ask Moon, and how convincingly the president responded when faced with such questions. For people to track down Song’s family background and plaster the Blue House petition website with criticisms of her facial expressions during the interview only shows how undeveloped society is.
Before she retired in 2010, Helen Thomas, the legendary American journalist who worked for United Press International for nearly six decades while covering the White House and the administrations of 10 presidents, said that she never thought it was disrespectful to ask tough questions to presidents. “If presidents are not asked tough questions, they could turn into a monarch or a dictator,” she said. Thomas also said that reporters don’t become reporters to gain fame and that it was their vocation to keep pressuring the president until they got answers.
That’s a lesson for all reporters who are unsure of their real role, as well as members of society who are not used to hearing criticism of the president.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 15, Page 30