Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Gross injustice?

Terry Gross is no Tim Russert. Her interviews are light. Airy I guess. I often imagine her and her guest leaning back in twin recliners. Dave Winer has posted on her recent interview with William Ayers. It wasn't as light. And Winer doesn't approve. He concludes:

Either she adopts the gotcha style and goes after everyone, from clowns to reporters, and I'll tune out for the same reasons I don't listen to other reporters who use that style; or she stays with the softball style I like, but I'll never be able to stop thinking of her as a hypocrite for being so gutless with Ayers.

I disagree with Winer's opinion. What bothers me most about his post and following responses is that while he complains about the tone, he only gives one specific: the question about an apology. He also misrepresents the question, claiming that she asked if he would be willing to take the 'unrepentent' part off the label 'unrepentent terrorist.' If that's what she had asked I would be right on board decrying the premise that after the apology Ayers is still a terrorist. But she didn't ask that. Here's her phrasing:

A lot of people have called you an unrepentant terrorist. I know— I think a lot of people want to hear you make a full fledged apology for—um—some of your actions—uh—with the Weather Underground, such as bombing the Pentagon. —Um—and so I want you—now that we've heard a lot of your story—to give us your answer to that.

She doesn't even ask if he'll apologize. This is so wide open that all she has said is that some people are demanding an apology and she just turns it over to him for a response. It's a dumb prompt. It's not tough. Not even tricky.

When I started reading Winer's post I stopped to listen to the interview before I knew his thesis. I wanted to get a sense of her questions without being contaminated by whichever complaint he made. After listening, I expected him to criticize her for throwing softballs. I was surprised that he thought she had done a gotcha interview. I thought it was more like a 'here ya go' interview. We can go back and forth saying 'she was too tough' or 'she was too soft' but that'll get nowhere. I posted a couple comments saying that I don't think Gross deserves much criticism. I provided some examples to make my point.

Towards the beginning of the interview she rolls over to give him all the room necessary to clarify what he meant by saying that he was misquoted about wishing he had done more. Later, Gross gives him easy questions like Do you think some of the tactics that you took on were in part this kind of youthful expression of anger: something that only a young person would do? Ayers is set ready to pounce on a hand-off like that. And she lets him. That's completely consistent with her usual style of letting the guest just tell a story. She doesn't question his explanations, she doesn't question his honesty or his facts. I only remember her questioning Ayers' consistency once: he speaks of the tactic of bombing as relatively harmless at one point and unnecessarily dangerous at another, so she asks him to explain.

I almost feel like posting some more but I don't want to be a pest. And Winer has now closed the comments.

The basis of my disagreement: Gross used a less conversational tone than her usual. But she really didn't push him on anything substantive. Her last question, asking about an apology, was gratuitous, but she gave him so much space to respond that he was free to reshape the issue and he was pretty much in charge of his answer, as he was through the entire interview. She didn't avoid every tough question, but she made it exceedingly easy for him to choose his posture and make his path. If her tone was a problem then give some specifics. Show me that she's trying to trap Ayers. That she's being at all tenacious. Her interview with Gene Simmons was tougher than this one. It really was.

I disagree that Gross should take the same approach no matter who the interviewee is. Each guest is a topic. And changes in tone to match a topic are always appropriate. Sometimes she laughs. Because comedians say things to make you laugh. Ayers didn't. Ultimately I'm not really sure what sort of interview Winer was hoping for. 'You know, I really admire your earlier bombs. How much fun did you have making them?'

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