One of the many reasons not to watch the Sunday morning talk shows is the absence of a gong. Guests come on and say whatever they damn well please, and if the host isn't sharp on the facts or lacks the spine for a confrontation, their assertions -- on occasion: their lies -- stand.
A gong on Meet the Press wouldn't be a literal buzzer that would serve as an ejector seat for failing guests. I'm thinking more of a team of researchers who would fact-check the conversation and alert the host -- ideally, in a matter of seconds -- when, say, a Dick Cheney goes off the rails and starts making stuff up. The researchers would produce dates, speakers, exact quotes -- real data from real sources. And then the host could ask the guest, "Well, Mr. Vice-President, what about it?" Fat chance a guest like Dick Cheney would admit error, but at least the error would be immediately visible -- and, perhaps, guests like Cheney would decide that maybe it's not worth the effort to show up on Sunday mornings. (Unintended benefit: better guests, better shows.)
The gong idea was on my mind as I prepared to fly out to the fifth D Conference, a high-level, Wall Street Journal-sponsored affair hosted by WSJ's consumer electronics columnist, Walt Mossberg, and his sometime Silicon Valley colleague, Kara Swisher. Part of the appeal of this conference is the high level of guests and the quality networking. But a large part is the pleasure of watching Swisher and Mossberg work.
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Terry Semel, Carly Fiorina -- whether you're a tech god, a flavor of the moment or a falling knife, you get the same treatment. That is: tough. Mossberg seems kindly and avuncular, the nerdy uncle you call when your iPod jams; he's actually an unreconstructed '60s radical, with a long memory for the dirty deed and the sharp deal. Swisher, gay and proud of it, comes on like a prosecutor and can deliver a withering cross-exam; not far under the surface, she can be a sweetie. They make a great team. [Disclosure: I've known both journalists for two decades and have a brief, subliminal role in the preparation for the conference.]
Watching world class journalists work, in real time, at the top of the game is a rare pleasure -- you almost feel bad for the billionaire on the hot seat. But there's a limit to what even the best reporters can accomplish in a half hour give-and-take. So I decided I'd try to support Swisher and Mossberg by getting to the microphone early in the post-interview period, asking pointed questions, and having relevant facts on hand so I could flag any errors.
I started with Sen. John McCain. Mossberg had come at McCain hard on his support for the war; to his credit, McCain sat on his rage and made a surprisingly reasoned argument for America's continued presence in Iraq. So I tacked away from the war and toward the government's war -- on our domestic rights.
"Yes or no, Senator, do you believe every American citizen has a guaranteed, Constitutionally-protected right to habeas corpus?"
"Yes," McCain said.
I quickly followed up: "How do you explain your vote for the Military Commissions Act of 2006?"
"That's for enemy combatants."
There were too many people waiting to ask questions, so I couldn't legitimately hog the mike. Had I continued, I would have pointed out: "Yes, but section 948a denies habeas corpus to any 'lawful enemy combatant' and leaves the definition to the President and the Secretary of Defense. Couldn't that strip me of habeas corpus, Senator -- or even you?"
My next question was for Les Moonves, CEO and President of CBS, an "old media" guy now wrapping himself in a digital cloak. Mossberg had taken a shot at Katie Couric's news broadcast. I thought to go further; as Media Matters had just reported, CBS was the only network not to cover Monica Goodling's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Was this, I asked, an oversight or a decision on the part of CBS News?
Moonves replied that he is not involved with CBS News on a daily basis, but he was confident that his news division adequately covered the story. Criticism comes with the territory, he said; the act of reporting the news means that one side or other will always be annoyed. Snore.
Kara Swisher came on, guns blazing, with Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore, suggesting that the day would come when its flagship publication would no longer be published on paper. Moore bristled, so I thought I'd take the point further.
In the last 18 months, I said, Time has run a cover story on Ann Coulter that never mentioned the possibility she might be psychotic... Joe Klein, Time's 'liberal' columnist, has been picking fights with almost every progressive on the Web.... and when Time hired a female columnist, it chose one whose claim to fame was investigating anal sex in Washington -- are these random, anecdotal events, or is Time actively trying to push away a liberal audience that actually likes to read?
Ms. Moore and Mr. Moonves had been trained at the same media training school. She was content with Time, she said, "just as long as we have as many people mad at us on both sides of the political spectrum." Not, in my view, a real answer, but it's what you get from CEOs who operate at 30,000 feet.
(For the record, I did ask one softball question -- about legacy -- to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, appearing together for the first time in two decades. Their answers made the audience gooey, but this was such a nostalgic conversation, that was already the spirit of the room.)
At another conference, my little experiment might have stuck out. Reading through the transcripts of the D conference, I see that I made modest additions at best. "There are no impertinent questions, only impertinent answers," Oscar Wilde said. Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher clearly agree. Somebody ought to give them a Sunday morning talk show.