What Are Interviews For? Letterman Meets Blagojevich
by Jeffrey P. Jones — Old Dominion University
February 11, 2009 – 00:00
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.