What Are Interviews For? Letterman Meets Blagojevich

Curator's Note

Entertainment talk shows such as The View and The Late Show with David Letterman are increasingly becoming “must watch” events when hosting politicians. What has been repeatedly demonstrated of late is how these “interviews” actually produce something new, original, interesting, and perhaps even “truthful.”  Why?  One answer is that entertainment talk show hosts are not constrained by their profession in what they can ask (as opposed to journalists).  The View co-host Joy Behar can simply tell Republican presidential candidate John McCain he is lying and ask why, while David Letterman can begin his interview with impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich by jumping ahead of the spectacle performance and ask, “Why exactly are you here, honest to God?”  At another level, such encounters highlight the differing conception of what should constitute an “interview” and what exactly is the purpose of the interview.  Journalists see it as their moment to hold a politician accountable, to inform citizens, or to get some nugget of information that they are responsible for “breaking.”  There are certain things, however, that are acceptable and unacceptable in such press-politician encounters.  When those things are violated, politicians can punish the press by ignoring them (see MSNBC or Fox as recent examples). 


Entertainment talk shows are not so constrained—the politicians need them more than they need the pols.  Hence, the talk show hosts are engaged less in an interview than in a conversation—one that allows the host to engage in assertions, common sense thinking, humorous bon mots, and simple retorts.  Having a live studio audience also keeps the proceedings grounded, as the audience tends to “participate” in the interview through their laughter or cat calls. In sum, these hosts and their shows may or may not be trying to get to the “truth” in different ways than journalists, but they do demonstrate that holding the powerful publicly accountable can be verbally prosecuted in myriad ways.  Perhaps that is one of the most important “effects” of entertainment television’s embrace of politics—such shows lead us to rethink just what interviews are for in the first place. 


I believe that it was David Letterman who coined the term "infotainment" to describe the convergence of "news" and performance in the postmodern, ratings-hungry age we live in.


Certainly, television news has moved decidedly in the direction of more fluff and sensationalism (as diagnosed by Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and other veterans of the "Golden Age" of TV journalism). (I realize that this tendency was "always already" with us, harkening back to the penny press and the Hearst newspapers.)


However, the self-imposed restraints on today's TV reporters (especially the White House press corps) are still preferable to the untrained questions and comments of a David Letterman, John Stewart, or Joy Behar, who are all primarily comedians. Being outrageous and calling people "liars" or questioning their sanity may bring a laugh, but does it advance the public policy issues? Likewise, Larry King's softball "Devil's Advocate" questions get us canned answers about serious matters. 


Admittedly, it was strange to see Rod Blagojevich appearing on so many infotainment shows, especially since he never addressed the serious questions about his ethical conduct except to deny wrongdoing. It was probably a public relations error on his part to be all over the airwaves NOT saying much about the specifics of his case. As Letterman said in the posted video, when someone denies their guilt so often it makes one suspicious.


But it's another order of business to have the former governor stroll onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater to the strains of Paul Anka's song "My Way." And it also does not advance the "truth" to ask Blagojevich whether he uses "shampoo and conditioner," as Letterman did.


Frank P. Tomasulo, Ph.D.

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