A good journalist gets the news. A great journalist gets the newsmaker.
Yesterday I announced the Digcast, my brand new internet radio show where I, a veteran Beltway insider, take you, a normal, behind the scenes with the winners and losers of each week.
On our debut episode I go head-to-head with Gawker Editor-in-Chief Alex Pareene. Gawker is in hot soup, having declared bankruptcy after losing a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Hulk Hogan, bankrolled by tech billionaire Peter Thiel. It seems the chickens have come home to roost for this outlet famous for defaming respected journalists and single fathers.
This was no “soft news” interview, my friends. I held Mr. Pareene’s feet to the fire and demanded to know just where he gets off, mister. Here’s a preview:
This Friday there’s definitely going to be fireworks in the air — and not just for Independence Day! Dig vs. Pareene will go down in journalistic history as a heavyweight bout worthy of a Polk Award nomination.
That day we recorded, after our mics fell silent and I was fresh off the high of devastating a cunning adversary, I could think only of other thrilling battles between newsmen and newsmakers. Journalism flows in my veins, and on a genetic level I can feel the successes of my fellow reporters. Here are a few of the combative interviews that inspired me:
Chris Matthews v. Zell Miller (2004)
In 2004 Democratic Sen. Zell Miller crossed party lines and endorsed George W. Bush for his reelection. At the Republican National Convention, Miller went on stage and delivered a barnburner of a speech attacking his party’s nominee John Kerry for supporting defense cuts and wanting to arm the military with “spitballs.” After the speech, Hardball‘s Chris Matthews saw his chance to trap the Georgia firebrand.
Matthews demanded to know if Miller really believed that Kerry and Ted Kennedy didn’t want to defend America. At the time, most voters believed Kerry would immediately surrender to al-Qaeda and pardon Saddam Hussein if elected. Miller hemmed and hawed, deploying country lawyer tactics and using colorful metaphors like “the Demmacrats are a bushel o’ chickens who done pecked into the whiskey cellar,” but Matthews stood his ground.
Eventually Miller got so frustrated he challenged Matthews to a duel on live television. Miller calculated that the pasty Matthews, a man who resembles a screaming trash bag full of white pudding, would immediately back down. Instead the wily newsman stood his ground, exposing the he-man Miller’s embarrassing Appeal To Violence Fallacy for all the nation to see.
Kerry may have lost, but Chris Matthews got the last laugh, as his bravery encouraged legions of netroots bloggers to call out “President Shrub’s” high crimes of firing attorneys, leaking a CIA agent’s name, and letting a city be destroyed by a hurricane.
Gore Vidal v. William F. Buckley (1968)
This is possibly the greatest television event of all time. In some ways, Buckley and Vidal were like prize fighters groomed from birth to compete. Except instead of running laps and doing pushups, they had spent their adolescents performing bizarre sexual rituals and reciting Greek poems at our nation’s most hallowed Ivy League secret societies.
Both intellectual titans, most viewers would have given Vidal the edge going into the bout. But that all changed when Buckley delivered the bon-mot to end all bon-mots, “I’m going to punch you in the face, you homo.” I wish some of today’s Trump trolls could watch this and see how their intellectual forebearers of the conservative movement used to conduct themselves with dignity and wit.
David Frost v. Richard Nixon (1977)
It should be no surprise that it took an Englishman to get the disgraced former President to admit to his many crimes. Our British friends are practically raised from birth to be tenacious debating machines, thrusting and parrying with their delightful cockney accents.
Nixon thought he would get an easy payday doing four interviews with the unknown limey journalist David Frost. He was wrong. Sadly for him, Saudi Development Corporations didn’t yet exist to give ex-Presidents and their wives an honest way to earn a living wage.
Of the course of four interviews, Frost thrusted and parried to make Tricky Dick admit to engaging in a cover-up and apologize to the American people. Famously, Nixon declared under Frost’s withering questioning that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” While the admission may have made Nixon look bad at the time, the Nixon Innocence Doctrine, as it came to be known, has since become a fundamental legal theory of the Executive Branch, with bearings on everything from Col. Oliver North’s reasonable misunderstanding about whether or not he was allowed to sell weapons to death squads to Hillary Clinton’s treasonous e-mail server.
Edward R. Murrow v. Robert W. Welch (1954)
Edward R. Murrow is a legend to journalists, and for good reason. The newsman loved the very concept of the news so much that he inspired beloved Newsroom character William “Da Typewriter” McAvoy. But it wasn’t his good looks and superb smoking technique that earned Murrow the admiration of millions. No, it was his dogged pursuit of the truth.
When John Birch Society hardliner Welch showed up on Murrow’s See It Now television program, viewers got fireworks. While both men’s points were frequently interrupted by heaving smoker’s coughs and PSAs admonishing young men for masturbating, the spirit of debate was as bold as ever on the then-new format of TV.
While Welch would say something like, “the East Coast ones, they collude with the ones in Hollywood to weaken men by making their actresses dress in short skirts and telling the men to behave like homosexuals to pursue them,” Murrow would shoot back with a sniper’s shot of logic, simply stating “Sir, sir, I believe you are being somewhat disingenuous, sir.” The riveting 5 hour program didn’t see a declared winner (besides the viewers!), but it was the kind of lively and honest journalism we used to see on TV.
Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman”. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet to @carl_diggler.