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On Thursday, Katie Couric’s podcast will air the second part of an audio oral history of her famous sit-down with then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin back in 2008. The first part of the series featured interviews with stakeholders like Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt, who advised John McCain’s presidential campaign and now have prominent positions at MSNBC.
Schmidt, an MSNBC contributor who recently joined the cast of Showtime’s The Circus, recalled Palin’s mood. “That morning of the interview, she was throwing her clothes around the room, throwing hangers at people, scrubbing makeup off her face, in a state of real distress,” he told Couric and her co-host, Brian Goldsmith.
The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Couric about the legacy of “the interview,” about cable news and about Palin, who she said was “a pre-cursor to Trump in the way she demonized the media.” This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Do you think an interview with a candidate today could become the phenomenon that your Palin interview was?
I think the media landscape obviously has become much more fragmented since I did that Sarah Palin interview 10 years ago…. I do think it would have probably reverberated around the web and on cable and television just because of the nature of that particular interview.
The evening broadcast newscasts, like the one you anchored on CBS, still seem to be viewed as neutral terrain for interviews with political candidates. And, they still have large audiences, which is why you said the Palin campaign agreed to the interview in the first place. How has the perception of those shows changed?
I still think, as an institution, the newscasts are seen as probably much more neutral than many other outlets. On the other hand, I think that the people who are leading those newscasts are less well-known than they once were.
Trump, like Palin before him, seems to successfully use the media as a whipping boy and as a way of riling up supporters.
Certainly with his base. We’ll see if his constant mantra of “fake news” is going to be effective with a wide swath of independents, and people may not feel that that’s the red meat they want to consume.
Do you expect that, in the future, candidates will only give interviews to partisan outlets of their choice, eschewing the broadcast networks?
I hope not. Because I think that’s a terrible thing for democracy and for a free press. I think that that’s only speaking to a certain segment of the population, and I think that’s one of the reasons we have become so polarized — politicians feeding into that. And, so, I hope they’ll go back to outlets that are respectable and intelligent and considered fair, and I think that unfortunately the president has deemed any outlet that doesn’t cover him favorably, or says something negative about him, or responds to something he says, as anti-Trump or anti-administration….
I think the way President Trump has characterized the press and demeaned reporters is really, incredibly dangerous, and I hope that this attitude about the press is going to change dramatically at some point.
Do you see cable news as being a positive force in society?
I think it can be. I think that this administration has presented new challenges for media outlets in general, and probably cable news in particular, because there’s the inextricable link between how you cover Donald Trump and the coverage itself. The inextricable link between covering Donald Trump and ratings, right? And, so, I think that clearly people are going — they’re attracted to the outlet that seems to share their sensibilities or point of view, and I think that is further dividing the country…. In some cases, it is very difficult, when it comes to personality, not policy, but when it comes to personality, it can be very challenging to be objective.
When do you think television interviews with politicians go wrong?
I think too often interviews are designed to create sparks and a lot of heat and not necessarily a lot of light. I feel like it’s more like watching a prize fight than watching a real search for truth or understanding. Now, you might argue that if an administration official seems not to be forthcoming or honest in an answer, that it’s up to the media to call that individual out. I understand that, as well. But I would love to see a little more effort to unravel and to go deeper and understand why someone would assert something. And, I’m not seeing enough of that, I think, on television, although I think some of it is going on. And some people are doing a great job. But I also think that anchors, in many cases, are trying to generate a lot of heat, not a lot of light.
Who do you think is doing a good job right now?
I feel like Anderson Cooper is very measured in his approach, and I appreciate that. I think sometimes he gets indignant, but I feel like he’s always trying to understand why a person is saying something. So, I think he’s doing a good job. I’ve always been a big fan of Andrea Mitchell. I think she does a terrific job….
I’m not a nightly consumer of cable news, but I do try to go back and forth, and it’s interesting when I look at how Fox is covering something and how MSNBC or CNN is covering something, and you do feel like you’re living in a parallel universe. And, so, it’s an interesting exercise.
Do you think conservatives learned a lesson from the backlash to your Palin interview?
As Nicolle Wallace said to us, perhaps Sarah Palin would have been better off just going to a friendly outlet like Fox News and going on Twitter. And that’s something that certainly is being practiced by our current president, right? So, I’m sure a lot of conservatives feel that way, and that’s a shame, because there’s got to be a place where everyone can be heard and listened to and challenged when appropriate and respected. So, I think it’s become increasingly tough to find those places.
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