As mainstream TV journalism strives to redeem itself from the degraded spectacle of its 2016 campaign coverage, CBS News might be expected to lead the parade of penitents—not because it has more to be ashamed of (that honor belongs to CNN for its orgy of Trump rallies), but because it’s something of a standard-bearer. So expectations rose when 60 Minutes announced it had scored the first post-White House sit-down with Steve Bannon. But Charlie Rose’s conversation with Bannon, broadcast September 10, illustrates everything wrong with showboat journalism and circus politics. There are lessons that might be learned if those in charge wanted to learn.
It was the usual sort of wink-wink collusion inside the Beltway. Bannon got what he wanted: a turn at bat in the great game of Which-Republicans-Own-Donald Trump, a chance to burnish his reputation as Mr. #War, and a chance for some artful dodging. Charlie Rose and his superiors got what they wanted: a tidy piece of contention and a kabuki version of journalism.
Rose has long since taken up guest residence in that special zone of the Washington swamp—the broadcast newsmagazines and Sunday morning chats—where the insider chroniclers dwell. These are the stenographers with amnesia so wonderfully designated by the late Jack Newfield. They specialize in sycophancy tinctured with enough snippiness—gotcha moments and flickers of attitude, tiny moments of titillation and revelation—to enable them to parade as independent. They succeed by eliciting self-contradictions, which are good for rebroadcasts and headlines. Those “make news.” By promoting the Beltway conversation, they enable the networks to flatter themselves that they’re “keeping it honest.” With the promise of gotcha moments, they draw eyeballs and eardrums.
Anyone who had read a single newspaper or magazine article during the last year already knew that Bannon had “declared war” on what he calls the Republican establishment. There was no news content here. Rose wasn’t looking to cast any light on the stakes of the touted war. He was looking to light some electric sparks, to elicit sound bites to be recycled around the mediasphere.
Rose and his fellow chroniclers are pretend journalists. They rarely follow the money. They do not investigate. They show few signs of knowing much about what happened before last week. They are impresarios. They thrive on surfaces. They flatter themselves that they do the public a favor by feeding them verbal bang-bang. But they are surfers. They like to think they go “in depth,” but their objective is not to challenge ideas or elicit fresh truth but to elicit sound bites and score ratings.
It is not the job of insider chroniclers to pose serious questions about values and worldviews. To explore those might be to unsettle the consensus of one or another establishment. The network has no interest in any such exploration. It has an interest in retaining the government-granted licenses from which its profits flow.
Were he an explorer and not a spectator in trivial pursuit of gotcha moments, Rose might have stepped away from Bannon’s own self-representation as Mr. #War and, for one thing, inquired into who’s banking his war. “I’m a street fighter,” Bannon bragged, enabling Rose to preen that he’d gotten the shiny sound bite for the next cycle of news.
ROSE: You are attacking on many fronts people who you need to help you to get things done. … And so therefore, now that you're out of the White House, you're going to war with [the congressional leaders]?
Rose might have inquired into the banking of Bannon’s war. He might have asked: Who’s that billionaire funding your street fights? What does Breitbart financier, hedge-fund tycoon Robert Mercer, who owns a data analytics firm that worked for Trump’s campaign, get for funding your ruckus? Why doesn’t he qualify as a swamp entrepreneur?
Rose went for juicier stuff, as in the rumor that Bannon called the firing of James Comey “the biggest mistake in political history.” To which Bannon unleashed his backhand: “maybe modern political history." Hey, Charlie, what about Nixon’s dirty tricks and his hapless cover-ups, including the subversion of the Vietnam peace talks to win the 1968 presidential election? But on 60 Minutes, history is dead stuff for nerds. So Charlie Rose trolled for leaks, asking Bannon whether the Trump White House talks about firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Rose wanted, in a word, hot dialogue:
ROSE: Did General Kelly say to you, "You've gotta go"?
BANNON: Absolutely not.
ROSE: Gary Cohn should have resigned [over Charlottesville]?
Rose orchestrated a skit in which Bannon would bash Mueller. Bannon’s riposte: “You can’t get caught up in individuals.” Rose was properly indignant that Bannon wanted to “go to war” with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, also individuals. “Is there not a contradiction in that?” Good zinger. Keep the talk to personalities. But he didn’t ask Bannon what he meant by “the institutional logic of the FBI.” Had he done so, he might have uncovered the full menace of Bannon’s crusade to “deconstruct the administrative state.”
Rose sought a review of tactics, not strategy, let alone goals. So, when he brought the subject around to immigration, he didn’t ask what Bannon might like to say to the families of the children he’s now inviting to “self-deport.” He went for inside baseball—the answer he knew Bannon would give, because he had been saying it for days:
ROSE: President made the wrong decision [about DACA]?
BANNON: I think that the—
ROSE: The president made the wrong decision?
BANNON: I—I think—
ROSE: You wanted him to—
BANNON: I think—
ROSE: … go full bore—
Uninterested in or unaware of history, Rose then set the stage for Bannon’s absurd pseudo-history. The “street fighter” delivered a set-piece:
America's built on our citizens. Look at the 19th century. What built America is called the American system, from Hamilton to Polk to Henry Clay to Lincoln to the Roosevelts. A system of protection of our manufacturing, financial system that lends to manufacturers, OK, and the control of our borders. Economic nationalism is what this country was built on. The American system. Right?
We go back to that. We look after our own. We look after our citizen, we look after our manufacturing base, and guess what? This country's gonna be greater, more united, more powerful than it's ever been. And it's not—this is not astrophysics. OK? And by the way, that's every nationality, every race, every religion, every sexual preference. As long as you're a citizen of our country. As long as you're an American citizen, you're part of this populist, economic nationalist movement.
Say what? Did not slavery have something to do with pumping up the economic muscle that undergirded “the American system”? Immigrants were essential, starting with Alexander Hamilton. As NPR’s Steve Inskeep noted, spilling over our borders was routine—we kept extending them by conquest. Weren’t blacks and women excluded from power during those days of greatness? And did neither of these two celebrities know that the “system of protection” was built on extending vast, unearned privileges to the well-off, to secure their oligopolies and augment their wealth?
But Rose did not care to explore the roots of this “economic nationalism,” Bannon’s grand project, shared intimately with Trump. He preferred to give Bannon a chance to trash Trump’s pussyfooting about DACA. “The Catholic bishops,” Bannon said, preposterously, “have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration. … They need illegal aliens to fill the churches.”
Bannon went on to tip his hat to the Catholic hierarchy about what he called “doctrine”: “I totally respect the Pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine.” Rose did not inquire into that doctrine, or probe whether it has anything to do with the Sermon on the Mount, resisting evil, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies—that sort of thing. Instead, Rose offered this: “Boy, that's a tough thing to say about your church.”
So it went, so it goes. Celebrity interviewers do not question the ideas of their illustrious interviewees. When they pop questions about who said what to whom, they invite zingers (“I’m a street fighter”), while sounding tough enough to please their bosses and their bedazzled viewers. They tell themselves that they’re doing the public a favor by giving them a backstage look at the insiders. This keeps access open for entertainment starring Bannon and more artful dodgers—perhaps even Kellyanne Conway, another White House fabulist, when she gets bounced as Bannon was. And, of course, access to the next Hollywood gala disguised as a White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Delivering an illusion of tough-guy give and take, and manufacturing drama with close-ups of fluttering eyelids, but risking nothing, 60 Minutes now plays to Mr. and Ms. America’s desire to get a look at movers moving and shakers shaking. It’s a mutual strip-tease that reveals nothing. Everyone gets what they came for. No one has to question a premise. No one has to come up with a fresh thought.
So it has come to pass that Charlie Rose is the face of seriousness at both PBS and CBS. He bestrides television land like a mellifluous, empty colossus, a courtier with a pleasant demeanor, a fitting pass at seriousness for the age of Trump.
No wonder that, according to The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker, “the president was pleased with Bannon’s most recent star turn.” Why not? CBS normalized the abominable.