The key to the significance of the Frost-Nixon interviews is that Richard Nixon did not realize what he was getting himself into.
Nor, for that matter, did he have much reason to feel ill at ease.
Having granted no previous public interviews since leaving office, Nixon figured his conversations with David Frost would be a cake walk. A puff piece. A string of softballs lobbed at a man who, for all of his alleged crimes, nonetheless was such a golden “get” for Frost—a foreign talk show host with no particular interest in hard news events—that to ask him challenging, confrontational questions would surely be an elementary breach of etiquette.
That Frost wound up being the man to wrest a sort-of confession from the 37th president regarding his involvement in the Watergate affair was a rather improbable eventuality, to say the least, and the very fact of the incongruity of the Frost-Nixon face-off is crucial to recognizing the contribution to journalism that was made by David Frost, who died over the Labor Day weekend at age 74.
While Frost would go on to forge a thoroughly respectable career in journalism, in the mid-1970s he was a mere playboy entertainer, caring about little more than women and ratings. Securing an audience with the disgraced President Nixon, whom he paid an unprecedented sum for the privilege, was his means of building an American following and thereby extending his brand.
Accordingly, Frost did not harbor the sort of vendetta or anger against Nixon that would naturally have led to the sort of interrogation to which Nixon had no interest in subjecting himself. Once the program got underway and Frost’s probes about Watergate grew increasingly pointed and relentless, Frost was nearly as surprised as Nixon.
The moral of this story, however disheartening, is instructive for the political media environment of today: Given the choice, public figures tend only to grant interviews to reporters or networks that they perceive to be friendly toward them. Even for a politician whose record is clean as a whistle, there is precious little to be gained from an encounter with a media entity that might be challenging or hostile.
So long as this remains the case—that is, so long as public officials take every opportunity to skirt responsibility for their actions in the public square—the situation would seem to call for a proliferation of journalists who are simultaneously friendly, fair and stealthily tough.
By no means is this an impossible task. Comedy Central, that most sober of American news sources, does it all the time.
As a case in point: Probably the most interesting interview conducted by John Oliver during his eight-week stint as temporary host of The Daily Show was with New York’s junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Amidst the lighthearted banter to which the satirical news program is entitled, Oliver pressed Senator Gillibrand to explain the rather intriguing contradiction between her calls for getting tough on America’s finance industry and the fact that she has received more campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs than any other U.S. senator. If Gillibrand is truly the independent representative of the people that she claims to be, Oliver asked, then what exactly was Goldman getting in return for its cold hard cash?
Gillibrand, who likely did not expect such a pointed inquiry on a program that is of like mind as her on most matters, did not even attempt to answer Oliver’s query—a response that perhaps revealed more than any actual response would have done.
Oliver’s was a perfectly legitimate question—an inescapable one, given the facts—and the key is that it was offered in good faith. It contained no malicious intent, nor did it imply or suggest any wrongdoing on Senator Gillibrand’s part, yet it was nonetheless a hard-hitting and intellectually rigorous interrogation.
“The reason I want to talk to you about this […] is because I like you,” said Oliver. “It’s easier to have this conversation with someone you expect of being duplicitous. But I think it’s perhaps more interesting with someone who you want to help make you feel better.”
In other words, one stands a better chance of arriving at the truth of the matter if one begins the conversation portraying a basic level of decency toward the subject, rather than a heaping mound of suspicion.
Politicians, like suspected terrorists, are likelier to provide useful information to someone whom they have come to trust and respect, rather than someone who is merely attempting to wear them down.
Attempting to get answers from someone you openly detest will surely prove a futile endeavor. But doing the same with someone whom you want to give every last benefit of the doubt? Now you’re getting somewhere.