Clearly, network anchors have much more sensitive skins than President Bush. Reporters insult him to his face, suggest he's concocting wars with fake intelligence, and insist he's incapable of admitting any mistakes. But to gain access to Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer, apparently you have to arrive with pom-poms and a pleated skirt.
Howard Kurtz interviewed ABC's Diane Sawyer about her disgustingly sympathetic 2007 Axis of Evil tour of interviewing the dictators of Iran and Syria for Monday's "Media Notes" column in The Washington Post. The piece read more like a press release for ABC than a news article. Take this line: "Just as industry insiders are wondering whether she is ready to abandon the predawn grind, Sawyer embarks on a one-woman diplomatic mission that has the business buzzing."
Is the Washington Post a newspaper just for "industry insiders"? Or is Kurtz more interested in being an "industry insider" than in challenging the network stars?
The closest Kurtz tiptoed to a question about Sawyer's critics was this sentence: "Asked about criticism that she was giving America's enemies a platform, Sawyer says: 'We may violently disagree with them, but first we must try to understand the way they see the world if we can.'"
Typically, Sawyer explained that she interviewed the dictators to flesh out the peace-loving peoples we clearly misunderstand, with the assumption that ignorant Americans can see only cardboard villains, and not the sympathetic tyrant who apparently cries a lot:
"I was trying to go to the places I think are one-dimensional to a lot of us, and trying to make them three-dimensional," Sawyer says. "It's something I love to do: not only get a sense of the politics, but of the people. It felt a little bit like my own personal endurance course."
One question left unanswered: in a dictatorship, do the people really matter? And when they are interviewed, can you really trust what they say isn't colored by fear of reprisals? The networks never seemed to understand this when they were chronicling the peace-loving people of the Soviet Union or its European satellites. The people may be peace-loving. They may even like Americans. But they're not the ones making the decisions about wars, cold or hot.
Instead of allowing one word from an ABC critic of any stripe, Kurtz let other ABC colleagues sing her praises:
"I think she's really energized," says Charles Gibson, her morning co-host until he took over ABC's "World News" in May. The Ahmadinejad interview "showed Diane off at her best, because she was very persistent with him." During the years he sat next to her, Gibson says, "three or four times a week, I'd think to myself, where did that question come from? She taught me a lot about the business of interviewing."
Sawyer's foreign adventures are a reminder that she can glide from geopolitics to pickles -- she had a grand time sampling the wares at a Syrian restaurant -- as well as chat up the usual celebrities.
For Post readers who may have missed Sawyer's toadying interviews with America's enemies (and supporters of international terrorism), Kurtz couldn't quote a single question, and the only questions he mentioned his passing were the challenging ones, not the syrupy ones:
Ahmadinejad ducked or finessed Sawyer's questions about the Bush administration's claims that Iran is supplying deadly weapons to Iraqi insurgents. "It was interesting to watch him retreat from his most incendiary statements," she says. "He would not repeat them."
When Sawyer asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about his country's role in the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister -- even mentioning suggestions that his brother-in-law was involved -- Assad said there were only "accusations" but no "evidence."
Kurtz didn't note, for example, that Sawyer didn't interrupt (or break out laughing) when Ahmadinejad insisted that "Instead of thinking of finding new weapons, we are trying to find new ways to love people." He didn't note that she asked Syrian dictator Bashar Assad about having Shania Twain on his iPod.
Kurtz didn't even ask why Diane Sawyer would give up her feminist principles and don a head-covering to look like a circa-1960s housewife to interview Ahmadinejad. He only noted that the dictator said patronizingly to her, "Those were combative questions. Women should not be asking tough questions about war, but about love and family and culture."
You almost had to laugh at Kurtz's opening:
Eight days ago, amid shouts of "Death to America!," Diane Sawyer waded into a huge demonstration in Tehran and asked a group of boys, "Do you not like me?" They thought for a moment and switched to "Death to George Bush!"
With the way that ABC has pounded President Bush over the war on terror, is it hard to imagine Sawyer thinking "Ah, that's much better"?