MONDAY, MARCH 15, 2021
Explosive bombshells versus performative gossip: Yesterday morning, on CNN's Reliable Source, the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik expressed a conventional view.
Brian Stelter had introduced his guest as "the one and only David Zurawik, the media critic for the Baltimore Sun." We've done some local radio shows with the gent.
For the record, conventional views are sometimes perfectly reasonable! Rightly or wrongly, here's what Zurawik said, speaking with Brian Stelter:
STELTER (3/14/21): It was the interview of the year, and the fallout has only just begun from Meghan Markle's charges about the palace to Piers Morgan's departure from ITV. This conversation continues in the U.K. and beyond...
Twenty-one million viewers in the U.S., at least 60 million viewers around the world. Zurawik, your review of Oprah's questions, as well as the answers.
ZURAWIK: They were great questions. Oprah is absolutely, remains the queen of T.V. interviews. It's awesome. I've been covering her for years, and I forgot how great she is at this.
She introduced race into this conversation. And that's what made it so profound, because she got to one of the great fault lines, one of the great points of confrontation in our society, and she created an atmosphere where they could talk about it.
Stelter called it "the interview of the year." Zurawik said it was awesome, profound.
This has become a conventional view within the mainstream press. As we noted a week ago, the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan offered this instant assessment of Oprah's performance, gushing headline included:
SULLIVAN (3/9/21): Oprah proved she is greatest celebrity interviewer of all time. All journalists can learn from her.
Gayle King used the word “perfection” to describe the royal interview heard round the world Sunday night.
Since she’s one of Oprah Winfrey’s best friends, her over-the-top praise on “CBS This Morning” may have come off as less than an objective analysis.
But she got it right.
And many of the 17 million who found themselves riveted by this royal Super Bowl, as Harry and Meghan spilled enough tea to fill up the Atlantic Ocean, would have had to agree.
Oprah's best friend got it right. Many viewers would have to agree.
The Washington Post's media columnist spilled with praise for Oprah's performance. But so had two hard-nosed scholars:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): With her relentless follow-up questions, compassionate demeanor and focused skill in eliciting bombshell after bombshell, Oprah proved herself the best celebrity interviewer ever. This may not have been much in dispute, after her interviews with Michael Jackson, Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama, among many others.
This, still, was clearly one of the biggest interviews of her life. Fully prepared for it, she delivered.
I was entertained by the admiring Twitter exchange Sunday night between two hard-nosed New York City journalism professors who are normally highly critical of the mainstream media.
“That was the best interview I have ever watched,” wrote New York University’s Jay Rosen.
“Great, but not quite Frost/Nixon level for me,” responded Bill Grueskin of Columbia University.
But David Frost’s televised grilling of the disgraced former president was back in 1977, so by this reckoning the royal interview might have been the best televised sit-down in the past four decades.
Thanks to her skill and her compassion, Oprah had elicited "bombshell after bombshell." She had proved herself to be "the best celebrity interviewer ever."
For herself, Sullivan had been entertained by the exchange between the two hard-nosed professors. By their lights, it may have been the best televised sit-down in the past forty-four years!
Yesterday morning, Stelter and Zurawik signed on to this general assessment. It has become a fairly standard view, but that doesn't mean that it's wrong.
For that reason, it was shocking when we read a letter the Washington Post chose to publish this past Sunday morning. The letter came from a surly fellow who said this view was all wrong. Hard-copy heading included:
A softball interview
In her March 9 Style column, “Lasting impressions from a royal exposé—Winfrey’s masterful interview of Meghan,” Margaret Sullivan discussed Oprah Winfrey’s interview and stated that journalists could learn a lesson from her. The lesson may not be what Ms. Sullivan intended.
I watched all two hours of Ms. Winfrey’s interview of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and came away feeling as though I saw only half the interview. Ms. Winfrey did a good job of getting Meghan to convey her sincere story of her hardships as a royal and her struggles with suicidal thoughts, but I left feeling all the questions weren’t asked.
I’ve read for nearly two years of the duchess’s disputes with staff that led to resignations and charges of bullying. No questions about this topic were asked. Meghan has worn diamonds from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder without disclosing their provenance. Harry was not asked why he didn’t prepare Meghan for the microscopic life as a royal, especially as he mentioned how damaging it was to his mother, Princess Diana. All this could have been disclosed at the end when Ms. Winfrey disclosed her close work with Harry. A journalist needs to learn to be skeptical toward an interviewee, especially when only one source is used. Ms. Winfrey needs to learn journalism, not teach it.
A journalist needs to learn to be skeptical? That's especially true when only one source is used?
Was this meant as a form of comic relief? This writer said Oprah was pitching softballs. Where do they find these guys?
This letter writer disagreed with the standard assessment. Days earlier, if only by inference, so had a reader of the New York Times. He had written from Mappowder, England to spout his contrarian views.
Was Oprah's performance the greatest in decades? Or had she been lobbing softballs? We can't necessarily answer your question. Like hundreds of millions of other Americans, we hadn't bothered to watch.
That said, we've been fascinated by pundit reaction to the "royal / celebrity interview." As a people, we may have a lot to learn from what transpired that night and in the days which followed.
According to Sullivan, Oprah proved herself to be "the best celebrity interviewer ever" with her performance that night. An awkward bit of ambiguity may infest that designation:
After all, it isn't just Meghan and Harry! Oprah's a giant celebrity too—even a bit of an American royal! Did Sullivan mean that Oprah's the best at interviewing such people? Or did she mean that Oprah's the best celebrity journo we have?
It has become the standard view—Oprah hit it out of the park that night. But as we've followed the subsequent commentary, we've been struck by how much information Oprah failed to elicit or clarify in the course of her marathon turn.
As for the the punditry itself, it has routinely struck us as embarrassing—as an indictment of the massively bougie, upper-end press corps culture which prevails in Our Town..
That culture is in love with celebrity. It's even in love with royals.
That culture's in love with performative virtue, but also with gossip. It traffics in instant (shaped) paraphrase. It doesn't care much about quotes.
We've reviewed small snippets of Orpah's work that night. We haven't found it impressive.
We thought the Post's letter made some good points. All week long, we'll examine this question:
Did Oprah elicit "bombshell after bombshell" that night—"explosive" bombshells at that? Or did she give us what we love most—a chance for performative gossip?
Tomorrow: Just as it ever was, widespread explosive agreement