Margaret Sullivan: As interviews get tougher, Team Trump doubles down on avoidance

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On Sunday's "Meet the Press," NBC News moderator Chuck Todd was insistent.

He had asked Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a simple question, and he was determined to get an answer: Why did Johnson tell the Wall Street Journal that he "winced" when he learned that U.S. military aid to Ukraine was linked to that country investigating former Vice President Joe Biden?

When Johnson instead launched into an obfuscating attack on the news media — and floated President Donald Trump's fact-averse talking points about Biden — Todd pushed back hard.

"I have no idea why a Fox News conspiracy is popping up here," Todd said as he tried again — and again — to get an answer from the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The result was a contentious shoutfest that went on for several minutes.

And though it didn't make for enjoyable television or helpful civil discourse, it was the right thing for Todd to do.

We're seeing more of this — and, pretty clearly, Trump and his communications team don't like it.

In fact, they apparently don't like it so much that the White House did not send their usual representatives out to the Sunday shows this past weekend.

Sure, the administration may have offered policy adviser Stephen Miller — a proven troll — but was turned down. But it did not offer Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, nor acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. (Trump's lawyer and frequent attack dog Rudy Giuliani did make a typically unhinged appearance on Howard Kurtz's media show on Fox News.)

What you did see, instead, on many of the Sunday shows, were Trump's TV ads, where his false "Biden is corrupt and so is the news media" message could go unchallenged.

Even more extreme are the Trump video ads that are appearing on Twitter, where anything goes given the platform's lax standards.

What's happening here is a notable change in Trump's long-running war against the news media. Here's how New York University Professor and press critic Jay Rosen told me he sees the "signal" coming from the White House:

"The signal is one of uncertainty: We don't know where this is going. We don't know that our normal tactics will work. We aren't confident that 'partisan witch hunt' still works the way it did. And we're not sure what the show hosts will do if we try to gaslight them."

Todd, for one, didn't allow any gaslighting. (I asked him about this in a phone conversation Monday morning, but he declined to be quoted on the specifics: "I don't think it's good for us to become the story.")

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Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University media school, told me Todd had no choice:

"Johnson came to the interview to change the subject, attack the media, undermine the basic premise and the reality itself surrounding the president's call to Ukraine to investigate his political foe," he said.

Sesno, a former anchor and Washington bureau chief at CNN, added: "As a former Sunday talk show host, I can tell you that about the only thing you can do if a guest comes on determined to grab the mic and filibuster is to grab the mic back and insist that the question, not the distraction, is what matters."

That's what Todd did — and we're happily seeing much more of that in recent weeks.

Reuters reporter Jeff Mason, too, did an admirable job last week of pushing for an answer to a Ukraine question — in his case, directly from Trump at his news conference with the president of Finland.

The questioning, which was polite but insistent, didn't turn out well for Trump, who came off looking like a movie thug as he rudely responded to Mason, "Are you talking to me?"

These exchanges are ugly.

As the House's impeachment inquiry escalates, and as more whistleblowers come forward, they aren't about to get better.

In some cases, TV interview shows need to rethink the idea of live interviews with Trump surrogates. Arguably, they are no longer serving the public interest.

And in all cases — print and TV interviewers, including those on cable news — need to cut through the obfuscating at every opportunity.

By ending the daily press briefing — it's now been well over 200 days since the last one — the Trump White House has shown clearly that it's not interested in being responsive to questions asked on behalf of the public.

The near-withdrawal from the Sunday programs is another step in that direction.

Trump likes his message to go out raw: unfiltered and unquestioned.

The voting public, though, knows the difference between journalism and advertising. Or at least, let's hope they do.

Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist for the Washington Post. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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