Yesterday NPR’s Terry Gross won accolades from the political and media establishments for her interview of Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton was disparaged by the same people for how she handled this interview. The praise and criticism centers on seven minutes of Gross trying to get Hillary Clinton to say something that Hillary Clinton won’t say — that she publicly evolved on same-sex marriage for political reasons. Hillary provides tons of commentary on whether to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples but not what Gross specifically wants so she asks the question — in various ways — 10 times. Eight of those are after Gross promises she has “just one more question on this.”
A sampling of the current groupthink on the issue includes this Washington Post story by Alexandra Petri headlined “Hillary Clinton’s strangely awkward Terry Gross interview on gay marriage.”
New York Times political reporter Nick Confessore offers:
And MSNBC’s Adam Serwer says:
The more you think about that Hillary interview on same-sex marriage the worse it sounds.
— AdamSerwer (@AdamSerwer) June 12, 2014
I’m less enthused by both Hillary Clinton and Terry Gross than many of my colleagues in the media are, but I took the time to listen to the portion of the interview in question. You can listen here:
A transcript, which appears to have been slightly rushed, is available at BuzzFeed.
Here’s the deal. With all due respect to the dulcet-voiced and predictably liberal Terry Gross, her questions demonstrate most everything that’s wrong with media coverage of same-sex marriage. That media coverage is unskeptical, political at the expense of anything deeper, and myopic to the extreme.
And as much as it kind of makes me die inside to say it, Hillary Clinton handled this interview really well — if you’re assuming she wants to run for president of an America that does not uniformly march in lock-step with the folks inhabiting most newsrooms.
Here are four troubling aspects about Terry Gross’ line of questioning:
1) Gross spent too long on an unrealistic goal
What journalist expects a politician to say, “Why yes, Ms. Gross, I did in fact lie through my teeth for decades for political gain. Thank you for asking!” Say what you want about Hillary Clinton, she’s not an idiot. She could tell — everyone could tell — what Gross was telegraphing from miles away. Hillary didn’t fall for it. That Gross tried nine more times, with increasing belligerence, doesn’t reflect poorly on Clinton but on her. Gross admits this is what she was trying to get Hillary to say in Question Number 9.
Every reporter has goals for an interview, and Gross is one of the best in the business, but this was a stupid goal and she should have recognized it by question 6, at least.
And on that note, unless you have four hours with a presidential candidate, this is a ridiculous length of time to spend on something unimportant — particularly when pursued so uncritically. This was seven minutes with the immediate past Secretary of State that could have been spent interrogating Hillary’s successes and failures regarding any of the global conflagrations that are exploding right now — Ukraine, Putin’s general march, the fall of Iraq, the rise of Iran, Libya’s anarchy, Syria’s human rights crisis, global persecution of Christians, Boko Haram, the coup in Thailand, North Korean threats, and so on and so forth.
2) Hillary’s right–everyone changed their mind on same-sex marriage in about 15 seconds.
Hillary responded to question #3 by saying:
CLINTON: “I think I’m an American, I think that we have all evolved, and it’s been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations that I’m aware of.”
Here’s Gross’ response:
GROSS: “I understand but a lot of people believed in it already back in the ’90s. They supported gay marriage.”
I want what Terry Gross is smoking! Because that’s hilarious. I mean, yes, on the far left, I’m sure a noticeable contingent were for same-sex marriage in the 1990s, when public opinion polling on the matter was scarce. And while I can’t find it right now, I recall reading polls of journalists in the 1990s that showed how out of touch they were with mainstream American thought and the most prominent example was that they were far more likely to support redefining marriage than non-journalists.
One of the media’s favorite narratives on this issue, in fact, is how quickly everyone has changed their mind on same-sex marriage, even if they don’t get into what people’s actual views are regarding what marriage is and what it means and how it’s defined and what it’s limits should be.
In any case, even if everyone in her newsroom and listening audience has roughly the same perspective, Gross should understand that the NPR community is not necessarily a good reflection of the general American population.
Speaking of, yesterday during this Gross interview I happened to be in the waiting room of my dentist waiting for my youngest’s teeth-cleaning to be over. I was subjected to the most unbelievably annoying Pete Seeger documentary (produced by Norman Lear, naturally) on the local public broadcasting station. Public broadcasting is a place where we subsidize documentaries about actual Stalinists, though I suppose I should note Seeger did eventually apologize for being AN ACTUAL STALINIST. (See this Daily Beast piece on “The Death of ‘Stalin’s Songbird’.”)
3) Why the purity test?
A popular media narrative is that the far right wing of the Republican Party makes the rest of the party hold to positions, preventing them from evolving. We see many stories about the Republican Party supposedly held hostage to rigid positions on, say, the meaning of marriage or whether it’s ok to kill unborn children.
But now we have this bizarre purification ritual where the folks on the left — be they NPR hosts or presidential candidates — must show that they were for the brand new idea before everyone else was?
This whole interview reeks of yet another “struggle session” — an increasingly popular ritual on the left to purge or punish anyone with the wrong views.
4) Why no skeptical questions about the rush?
Which brings us to the biggest problem of this interview, and, indeed, our entire media-industrial complex.
To show what I mean, let’s look at what Hillary Clinton said in 2000:
"Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman."
Now, I know the popular view among our deep thinkers in the media is that recognizing this truth should probably be a capital offense. But to paraphrase and quote something I wrote in “The Rise of the Same-Sex Marriage Dissidents,” marriage is historically understood as being based on the reality that all humans have complete biological systems in their body save one. That one for which we all have only half is the reproductive system — the means by which we propagate the species. Humans have all sorts of relationships but marriage was about sexual complementarity for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with bigotry, obviously.
Now if one wants to change marriage laws to reflect something else, that’s obviously something that one can aim to do. We’ve seen the rapid, frequently unthinking embrace of that change in recent years, described one year ago in the humanist and libertarian magazine Spiked as “a case study in conformism” that should terrify “anyone who values diversity of thought and tolerance of dissent.”
But there should have been a bit of a burden of proof on those who wanted to change the institution — something beyond crying “Bigot!” in a crowded theater. Perhaps advocates of the change should have explained at some point, I don’t know, what singles out marriage as unique from other relationships under this new definition. What is marriage? That’s a good question to answer, particularly if you want to radically alter the one limiting factor that is present throughout all history. Once we get an answer for what this new marriage definition is, perhaps our media and other elites could spend some time thinking about the consequences of that change. Does it in any way affect the right of children to be raised by their own mother and father? Have we forgotten why that’s an important norm? Either way, does it change the likelihood that children will be raised by their own mother and father? Does it by definition make that an impossibility for whatever children are raised by same-sex couples? Do we no longer believe that children should be raised by their own mother and father? Did we forget to think about children in this debate, pretending that it’s only about adults? In any case, is this something that doesn’t matter if males and females are interchangeable? Is it really true that there are no significant differences between mothers and fathers? Really? Are we sure we need to accept that lie? Are we sure we want to?
I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a single skeptical question from any journalist on the topic of same-sex marriage. Their advocacy for same has been crushing and has contributed to a destruction of discourse that is harmful to civil society. There has been virtually no decent treatment of the arguments against government redefinition of marriage and little beyond puffy cheerleading in favor of such a redefinition. There has been virtually no thought put into the chance that maybe there was some seriously important wisdom in the the marriage views of all societies throughout space and time before ours right now.
And so when we see an interview like this one of Hillary — where what’s most striking is how she does her imperfect best not to disparage those people who still hold on to the unpopular truth that men and women are not in fact interchangeable in marriage — and I see the media elite beat their chests and cry out against her, it is yet another reminder of how their treatment of this issue is obnoxious, juvenile, shallow and harmful.
But carry on, journalists. There are more struggle sessions to be had. Get about the important business of purging all dissent!