January 8, 2014

Why do members of Congress, nice enough in private, get tough on camera, when network journalists, presumably also nice in private, stay nice on camera?

In his new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," former Secretary of State Robert Gates makes this criticism of the members of Congress:
During his tenure as Pentagon chief, Gates often found himself tempted to quit because of the adversarial treatment he received from members of Congress. He says that in private the lawmakers could be reasonable. "But when they went into an open hearing, and the little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf," he says in an excerpt in the [Wall Street] Journal.
Here's the WSJ excerpt, in which I cannot find that quote, but there's additional text about Gates's dismay at congressional brutality. He says that at congressional hearings he'd often thought of slamming his briefing book shut and saying: "there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit." He complains about "the consistently adversarial, even inquisition-like treatment of executive-branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—creating a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when television cameras were present."

Are television cameras to blame? Yesterday, I was talking about how inanely nonconfrontational David Gregory is on "Meet the Press." He and his fellow journalists coddle administration officials. They sit back, nod, and say "okay" and "right" as these people deliver their prepared talking points. They don't seem to understand that they need us, the audience, and we want vigorous, probing questions. They're making one another comfortable, on camera, in the manner Robert Gates describes as prevailing behind the scenes in Congress.

How can we explain this difference? Why do members of Congress, nice enough in private, get tough on camera, when network journalists, presumably also nice in private, stay nice on camera? Let me offer a few answers for your assessment:

1. To put on a good TV show, you do need to get tough on camera, and "Meet the Press" is failing as a TV show. It's ratings are way down. Maybe members of Congress should not see themselves as putting on a TV show, but they are modeling how to put on a show.

2. Members of Congress have the power to force administration officials to appear and to testify under oath, but the producers of a show like "Meet the Press" can only extend invitations, invitations that will be accepted only if the invitees think it will be to their advantage. As there are more than one show, a host needs to give the best party to entice A-list guests. The real guests that matter, of course, are the home audience, but the TV show folk must think the viewers look at the guest list to decide what to watch.

3. Members of Congress face elections, and the judgment of voters exerts more pressure than the judgment of viewers. The viewers and the voters are just the American people, but each member of Congress is answerable to his (or her) constituents, and a national TV show is trying to appeal to everyone. The member of Congress has a more focused idea of what people in his state or district are going to grill him about, and the journalists involved in a TV show think more vaguely about what will make people tune in and stick around.

4. Both the members of Congress and the journalists are supposed to feel a profound sense of responsibility for the power they exercise, but actual power to legislate is different from a power only to influence people through the force of words. You'd think this difference would create more vigor in the expression of the journalists, so why would it have the opposite effect? The easiest inference is that the aim of the journalists is to lull the people.

43 comments:

Bob R said...

I think your point two is the most important. It allows the congressional panelist to force someone to sit through a speech, a scolding. I wonder if Gates is objecting to genuinely tough questions, which Tim Russert could put in a perfectly "nice" way.

St. George said...

Some point man, he was.

The Drill SGT said...

Because being pleasant to guests on a TV show gets you folks that want to come back and makes you appear balanced.

Being tough in Congressional hearings makes you seem smart and doing your oversight job. It gets you press (the way nice would not) and who knows you could parlay a good set of hearings into the WH. Truman did it :)

Chuck said...

Editing. That's the answer.

In Congressional hearings, the "hard" parts feature members of Congress looking for <10 second soundbytes that might play on the news.

On a Sunday morning show like Meet the Press, the host and the producers are trying to hold an audience for a full 60 minutes, and harsh questioning turns off a lot of people over time. Many people, especially an older demographic, want a narrative conversation, no confrontation.

By the way, for anyone who watches (as I do) a lot of C-SPAN knows, Congressional hearings are most often filled with interminable niceties and congratulatory platitudes. So much so that it is boring.

By the way, I don't doubt for a moment that Gates was justified in thinking that he was being forced into some idiotic political theater, and wanted to flee.

Illuninati said...

It is normal for people to crave power as much or more than wealth. Politicians who get elected have more ambition and ability to achieve power than most people. In private politicians power is mostly social so they behave more like normal people but in committee they have the power to force other people to interact with them or go to jail so their lust for power becomes more dangerous to the one being interrogated.

66 said...

I have been disappointed by the excerpts I have heard about from Gates' book. I am no Obama fan, but there is an implicit promise that when you agree to be a cabinet secretary, especially in a sensitive post like defense, that the president can share his thoughts with you without having to worry about whether you will sell those thoughts in a book. I had expected better from Gates.

As to his comments about his congressional testimony, to me he comes off as a whiner. I am glad that elected members of congress put pointed questions to appointed members of the executive branch. If the questioning was too tough for his delicate constitution, then he should have quit long ago. I suspect Obama would have been better served without him.

66 said...

I have been disappointed by the excerpts I have heard about from Gates' book. I am no Obama fan, but there is an implicit promise that when you agree to be a cabinet secretary, especially in a sensitive post like defense, that the president can share his thoughts with you without having to worry about whether you will sell those thoughts in a book. I had expected better from Gates.

As to his comments about his congressional testimony, to me he comes off as a whiner. I am glad that elected members of congress put pointed questions to appointed members of the executive branch. If the questioning was too tough for his delicate constitution, then he should have quit long ago. I suspect Obama would have been better served without him.

Eric said...

The only important rule for Congressional testimony is that those giving testimony must be obsequious. No violations of this rule are tolerated. With this rule in place, our beloved Congress can fire at will with no fear that a response might require them to show that they know what they just said.

Brennan said...

Bob Gates is afraid of C-Span cameras?

Good lord. If you have concerns with the questions from members of Congress when the cameras are rolling, talk to them afterwards to express this concern.

"I quit." sounds like cowardism. Make your concerns heard. Sheesh.

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...

There are different kinds of "tough" on camera..
..from 'intellectually challenging' tough at the pace of Wm F. Buckley's "Firing Line"
..through 'mindless and inconsiderate confrontational yelling' of Crossfire"..
..to 'patent physical abuse' of "Jerry Springer."

Most Congresspersons probably go the the entertainment end of the spectrum rather than the educational/enlightenment end - be a populist and get the votes.

The Godfather said...

To the limited extent that I've watched televised Congressional hearings, what has struck me is not that the members ask "tough" questions, but that they make self-serving speeches, followed by rhetorical questions. I suppose that could be annoying for a witness, it certainly is annoying for a viewer.

The Godfather said...

To the limited extent that I've watched televised Congressional hearings, what has struck me is not that the members ask "tough" questions, but that they make self-serving speeches, followed by rhetorical questions. I suppose that could be annoying for a witness, it certainly is annoying for a viewer.

Matthew Sablan said...

Our political system is meant to be adversarial. A lot of times, it is just hectoring people for doing bad things. But, like with the F&F, Benghazi or IRS abuse cases, sometimes, an administration official DOES need to be dressed down.

Matthew Sablan said...

But, I'm reading a lot about Duty right now, and, well, I think that this book will explain a lot about the dysfunction between the White House and defense organizations.

pm317 said...

About Gates' memoir, I wonder what Hillary could write if there were no adverse repercussions. I hope she does that instead of running (and losing) in 2016. She will be doing this country a favor.

Matthew Sablan said...

"I am no Obama fan, but there is an implicit promise that when you agree to be a cabinet secretary, especially in a sensitive post like defense, that the president can share his thoughts with you without having to worry about whether you will sell those thoughts in a book."

-- Eh, I'd like to believe that's what a president will get, but that's never been how it works. You always get a few people like this, and I'm not really surprised that it would be Gates. Especially if the level of disrespect he was shown from both Congress and the White House are not being exaggerated by the excerpts/memoir.

Brennan said...

Put Gates down in the category for honorary member of the "Valerie Jarrett Fan Club".

Carnifex said...

I would posit that one reason that the panel hearings are so adversarial is because one can only hear "I don't remember." so many times before one is trully pissed off. I know I would.

As for Gates quitting...it's always easier to pontificate, but how many people quit their jobs because the boss is an ass? Very few indeed.

SteveR said...

Clearly the word has gotten out: Discredit Gates and his book quickly and which ever way possible, including comments on blogs. Today. All over the place.

Hagar said...

On that level it can be difficult to decide between: Should I stay and try to salvage what can be salvaged from within, or should I quit and tell the outside world why?

And the conflictions are not necessarily resolved in hindsight, either.

Lucien said...

I wonder whether Secretary Gates's memoir says that he always answered questions in Congressional hearings honestly and straightforwardly, rather than mouthing evasive talking points and sticking to them no matter what.

When government officials refuse to give straight answers to straight questions they don't get to whine when the questioning turns hostile or seems unfair.

Matthew Sablan said...

"Snowden walked away when he saw what was happening where he worked."

-- No. He stole data and betrayed the trust placed in him. Gates, at least, only betrayed a personal trust.

Plus, it isn't like he told us anything informed people didn't already know. Biden is incompetent at foreign policy? Shocker! Hillary and Obama don't really care what happens in Afghanistan except as it relates to them, politically? Tell me another.

ErnieG said...

One reason that congressmen can be ugly and confrontational, and say outrageous things in hearings or on the floor, is the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution.

Scott M said...

I've no idea whether or not female athletes experience the same thing as male athletes do, but there is a very real affect on a player that knows they are being watched by someone in the stands that they are interested in. To a lesser extent, the affect can manifest itself if there's a rare family attendance.

From decades (ugh) now of competitive sport, I know for a fact that there's a singular phenomena that fires the nerves, creates untapped reservoirs of ability, that manifests itself on the field of play if the athlete in question knows that a girl/women his is interested in is watching. There is a very real change in that player's performance. Not always for the better (because of the split in concentration), but the physical side is "all in". You'll sell the body out, attempting to make plays you might not have if yon fem weren't watching. To me, this is just another facet of the intricate dance of human courting.

Members of Congress are courting voters, thus, maybe the analogy holds.

Further, perhaps people like Gregory and his producers don't feel like they're courting viewers. Maybe they see themselves as a PSA-organization rather than a competitive outfit that is duking it out for advertising revenue.

(Note: while I was typing this, some chick I dig was watching so I was smashing the keys extra hard and saying all of my biggest words out loud)

Matthew Sablan said...

I guess it matters who Snowden gives what data too. Any SecDef would have pretty much had to let the White House have its way, so I don't think it would have mattered if Gates checked out or not.

David said...

There is a difference between a tough, adversarial question and a tough, illuminating question. The Congresscritters excel at the former.

David said...

"Gates, at least, only betrayed a personal trust."

Gates is old fashioned. He believes in public trust. It's the "personal trust" (actually mutually assured destruction) between politicians that's the problem.

John Lynch said...

How did Gates not know that this would happen, given his decades in government? Did he get old and forget?

John said...

And yet he went along with everything Obama wanted to do (or not do)

I can understand a feeling that if one takes the King's shilling, one can't criticize.

But if things were as bad as Gates says they were, why did he not resign?

I think Gates is compromised and his book sounds like self-serving horseshit. He is just trying to deflect blame.

If he was not part of the solution, he was part of the problem.

John Henry

Matthew Sablan said...

"But if things were as bad as Gates says they were, why did he not resign?"

-- We probably have to buy the book to find out.

Hagar said...

The situation couild have been worse if Gates had quit and Obama put Hagel in sooner.
Who knows?

Todd said...

I think your #4 is closer to the answer but it also leaves out that most journalists and media people are currently in the roll of playing sports announcer for the home team. They are not more confrontational because they are on the administration’s side. You want to see them bare their teeth, watch when a Republican is on.

Hagar said...

Did Gates complain about "tough questioning" or "grandstanding"?

Sam L. said...

The "journos" are pro-Obama and his administration. Repubs, they'd de3monstrate their teeth on.

Cedarford said...

Blame people in the Executive Branch that go into those Hearings with Dem or Republican Administration's White House instructions to grovel and kow-tow to the mighty Congresswoman or senior Senator from some buttfuck state.

"Be nice, don't tick them off! We might need Maxine Walters vote in the future on some other matter, so don't frame her as a clueless bitch, and that goes double for senior Senator Worthless Blowhard...who could pocket veto nominations if you show he is the worthless sack of shit we all know he is."

But just once, I'd like to see an official with impeccable reputation and no real need to have a political future - go into one of those faux witch hunt Committee Hearings and just trash any member of Congress that crosses the line into unwarranted personal or professional attack.

Cedarford said...

66 - ""I am no Obama fan, but there is an implicit promise that when you agree to be a cabinet secretary, especially in a sensitive post like defense, that the president can share his thoughts with you without having to worry about whether you will sell those thoughts in a book."

================
You may have a point about loyalty. But the oath those people take is not to serve Dubya or Obama but to the Constitution and the People. That is why they are called public servants, not Obama servants..
And if the boss is saying one thing to the People and another thing entirely different in private, if control of the military is being co-opted by power thirsty hacks in the White House away from DOD and the military leadership...the People should know.

That is the higher duty and loyalty that "team players" in all too many Administrations overlook.

Michael said...

Cedarford. Agree. Gates should have done what he thought which was to tell one of his Congressional questioners that " mo son of a bitch talks to me like that" and walk out. Not quit, just walk out. That kind of candor might alter the whole process because we know who would end up looking bad in that encounter

mccullough said...

Roger Clemens is a snake and a cheat. But he didn't back down in his Congressional testimony, and let a couple of those douchebags have it a bit. He ended up getting prosecuted for perjury, but was acquitted.

That was the last time Congress will call hostile baseball witnesses for another "hearing."

Kansas City said...

I think Obama is a very poor and totally unqualified president and Biden is now,and has always been, a joke and a remarkable story of how a highly ambitious fool can prosper in American politics (at least if he is a democrat with favorably press coverage). However, I have problems with Gates working as Secy of Defense for 3 plus years and then writing a book cricial of Obama. I also read hiw WSJ column this morning and was not impressed. He does not really say much definitively and expresses a lot of feelings, not facts.

As to the TV shows, the interviews are inherently flawed because the interviewer depends on the goodwill of the talking points politician/operative and, therefore, is unwilling or unable to challenge them. They also maddeningly almost never listen to the answers and ask follow up questions - e.g., if the answer is the Clinton administration produced the greatest economic boom ever, then ask what specific actions Clinton took that produced the boom. Instead they simply go to the next question. They also never point out when a guest fails to answer a question.

I routinely skip interviews of any politician or operative, and only listen to the segments which include analysts who might have something interesting to say. ABC is awful with partisan analysts, e.g., is Donna Brazille going to say anything that is not a democratic talking point? FOX is best. NBC tends to go with Washington insiders, but has some interesting people from time to time.

David Davenport said...

Gates probably knew about NSA snooping.

Does his book touch on that?

Gates was also probably complicit in not relieving incompetent generals, such as three star Affirmative Action general Robert Sanchez.

MisterBuddwing said...

NOT FOR PUBLICATION:

The top of the post refers to Robert Gates as a "former Secretary of State."

Also, the tags include mention of Bill Gates instead of Robert.

Tom said...

I doubt Bob Gates has trouble with tough, thoughtful questions or feedback. I think Bob Gates, however, has a problem with assholes asking tough sounding questions or delivering lectures to score tv points with little regard for if the questions, answers, or questions were helping better protect the country. And I'd have a problem with that too.

amielalune said...

The premise is B.S. TV talking heads are plenty confrontational when talking to a Republican, and you know it.

Why act as if you don't?