Oh, the joy to watch a brilliant news interview, the work of a master such as Bob Costas who, like a knight out of our journalism story books, charged onto NBC's new high-tech set Monday night and delivered a low tech tour de force.... phoner!
As happens in all high art forms, Costas made this incredibly challenging interview seem effortless. I read one glowing review today that credited NBC execs for "giving" him this assignment. I doubt it happened that way.
I would bet Costas was working on the Jerry Sandusky interview long before anyone at NBC News would have convened a meeting. Having delivered decades of fair and interesting interviews, Costas has the Rolodex, respect and reputation to serve as a stealth weapon of mass destruction against any competitive booking team.
But getting a newsmaker in the chair (or on the phone as it turned out) is only half the battle. Getting a person in the middle of a media frenzy to really talk is the other, especially when that frenzy is over a pedophile sex scandal and football.
Eric Wemple, the Washington Post's news media op-ed editor, said it best:
"The tone put this interview into a special category. Over nearly ten minutes Costas managed to be: prepared without being formulaic or rigid, polite without being nice, and skeptical without being prosecutorial."
The transcript of the Sandusky interview cannot possibly reveal the mine field through which Costas was walking. One wrong step, I kept thinking, and Sandusky can just cut off the questions, put down the phone as in, "Uh, thanks for your interest, Bob, but gotta go now, it's been a long day."
Instead, Costa was getting Jerry Sandusky to open up and say (with a disturbingly flat affect), "I shouldn't have showered with those kids."
It reminded me of Michael Jackson admitting he slept in the same bed with a 13-year-old for 30 consecutive days in the boy's mother's house, but that he and the child (his first accuser) only watched scary movies together.
Pedophiles are very crafty, but if you can keep them talking you can learn a lot. Masters of manipulation, they often believe the "winning ways" which work on 10 year olds will also fool grown-ups. It rarely does.
Again, the transcript cannot capture how calmly Costas walks Sandusky forward in the interview after the former Penn State coach proclaimed his innocence, denied inappropriate behavior with underage boys, then denied ever touching their genitals or engaging them in oral sex.
COSTAS: What about Mike McQueary, the grad assistant who in 2002 walked into the shower where he says in specific detail that you were forcibly raping a boy who appeared to be ten or 11 years old? That his hands were up against the shower wall and he heard rhythmic slap, slap, slapping sounds and he described that as a rape?
SANDUSKY: I would say that that's false.
COSTAS: What would be his motive to lie?
SANDUSKY: You'd have to ask him that.
COSTAS: What did happen in the shower the night that Mike McQueary happened upon you and the young boy?
SANDUSKY: Okay, we- we were showing and- and horsing around. And he actually turned all the showers on and was- actually sliding- across the- the floor. And we were- as I recall possibly like snapping a towel, horseplay.
His answer was creepy. I immediately wondered if Sandusky began his predatory game by getting the child to turn on all the showers, something that night muffle any noise.
Horseplay in the shower with a little boy, it breaks my heart. At least Costas had the sensibility to move on quickly and not belabor the details.
I'm especially glad Costas' repertoire doesn't include the most over-used trick in television: the parroting of a key word or phrase in a reply, generally when interviewers are posturing, punctuating an outrageous claim or number, or signaling to viewers at home they understand your shock.
It could have gone like this: "Horseplay? Do you think the eight boys who are coming forward now will describe it as horseplay?"
No, not Costas who resists cheap tricks and instead moved Sandusky forward Monday night to get him on the record answering two more accusations. One molestation was reported by a janitor, the other documented by a mother who, working with law enforcement, secretly tape recorded her son's coach.
COSTAS: In 1998, a mother confronts you about taking a shower with her son and inappropriately touching him. Two detectives eavesdrop on a conversation with you, and you admit that maybe your private parts touched her son. What happened there?
SANDUSKY: I can't exactly recall what was said there. In terms of- what I did say was that if he felt that way, then I was wrong,
COSTAS: During one of those conversations, you said, "I understand, I was wrong, I wish I could get forgiveness," speaking now with the mother. "I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead." A guy falsely accused or a guy whose actions have been misinterpreted doesn't respond that way, does he?
SANDUSKY: I don't know. I didn't say, to my recollection that I wish I were dead. I was hopeful that we could reconcile things.
In ten minutes, Costas brought us the broad brushstrokes of the case against Jerry Sandusky, along with many heartbreaking and indelible details.
I predict the entire raw tape of Costas stunning interview will be subpoenaed by Sandusky's prosecutors. Then, every pause, every hesitation, every clue will be analyzed as will Sandusky's lack of shame to be asked such questions, his lack of outrage any of us might feel if we found ourselves wrongly accused.
Demeanor can count for so much. A sociopath can't "read the room," and often believes he (or she) has hit the right tone and pitch to be convincing, whether they are acting calm and reassuring or shedding crocodile tears for effect.
Only a most skilled interviewer could navigate the turf as did Bob Costas, who arrived in the nick of time as Sir Galahad who put Rock Center on the map its third week out, and said to all doubters: "Oh ye, of little faith."
My good blade carves the casques of men
My tough lance thrusteth sure
My strength is as the strength of ten
Because my heart is pure.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
NBC still came in 4th last night in the ratings, although Rock Center With Brian Williams saw a 30 percent improvement from last week (4.5 million, 1.3). Next week, unfortunately, the show moves to 8:00 Wednesday nights, then Thursday nights in January.
I hope the executives reconsider the changes. You could have never aired the Sandusky interview in an earlier family viewing hour. Producing news magazine shows on Wednesday and Thursday nights is a completely different animal. If left to grow, with all NBC talent welcome to compete for the lead story of the week, the live and nimble Rock Center that thrilled last night could easily become appointment every Monday night at 10.