Journalism hit by Frost-bite? We’re Palin jus’ thinkin’ about it

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The 20th century saw the might of the media rise, supported by the power of the interview:  Diana, Princess of Wales, with Martin Bashir; Marilyn Monroe with Richard Meryman; the Sex Pistols with Bill Grundy. These three pairs came together to allow the public to gain a glimpse into the hidden world of a royal marriage and an unhappy princess, to hold onto a star’s last words, and view the clash between a BBC reporter and a vibrant group of punk rockers. Peter Morgan’s play, Frost/Nixon, toys with one such great meeting; the clash of two titans that brought the public as close as it would ever be to the truth of Nixon’s involvement with Watergate. But the question still remains whether the 21st century has seen such changes to the media that its gem, the interview, can no longer blossom.

The interview has come up against two hurdles. Thanks to the internet and, in particular, blogging, every single one of us can state our viewpoint and version of events. It is no longer necessary to open a newspaper or tune into the radio to learn what’s happening, nor are journalists our only link to the rich and famous. Every celebrity, royal and politician can now keep the public informed, entertained and involved with their views on life without the aid of the interviewer. Twitter and other such media may potentially prove to be the death of this previously all important middleman.

So perhaps there is no more need for another Bashir to coax a royal into laying bare their feelings in front of the world: social media can empower anyone to divulge as much as suits them best from the comforts of their own palace.  Yet the series of interviews conducted by David Frost with President Nixon should encourage us to retain the interview. Frost did not, as Nixon and his staff had hoped, play along in the part of sympathetic spokesperson, through whom the ex-President might again touch the hearts of the public. He assumed the role of interrogator and so gave Nixon the trial he (thanks to the pardon granted by his successor Gerald Ford) thought he had escaped.

The interview remains a theatre where interviewer and interviewee can test each other, the truth can be probed and characters can be put under a microscope.  However, in a 2007 article in The Guardian, Simon Hattenstone, best known for his Banksy interview, voiced a fear that “journalism is not simply in danger of being an extension of the PR arm, it is in danger of being the uncritical, positive-spin publicity machine full stop”. His view is that journalism is running the risk of becoming completely “servile” as there is no longer an equal relationship between interviewer and interviewee. It is indeed true that, since there are now so many other means by which they may have their voice heard, stars can make steep demands before consenting to be interviewed, thereby gaining control of the entire proceedings.

There is a danger that we allow journalism to grow blunt and that we undervalue the opportunities we are presented with by closely questioning a subject through an interviewer. Perhaps our society is getting too caught up in the material trappings of this world that the forum in which our 20th century reporters used to bring truths to light has become entirely malleable by cash. But we still have cases which prove the value of the Frostian interview in helping keep journalism’s place in the 21st century. In 2008 the world followed as America became the stage for one of the most heated presidential races to date. The media has played a prominent part in American presidential campaigns ever since Eisenhower first made use of his spot commercial Eisenhower Answers America to gain the trust of his voters. However it was the interview of Sarah Palin by Katie Couric that showed how the simple interview could have a decisive impact on the presidential race. Palin and her co-workers claimed that the lack of insight, let alone clarity, of her responses to Couric’s questions were due to her being “over-managed” but what these interviews unquestionably showed was a vice-presidential candidate who was not prepared for such a major political role – let alone an interview on foreign policy and the financial crisis. This interview certainly seems to have played its part in changing public opinion towards the McCain campaign.

We are running the danger of making the interview a redundant practice of journalism, and yet the interview of Sarah Palin by Couric reminds us exactly why we should not let this happen- just as the interview of Nixon by Frost first proved the power of the interview. Hattenstone himself showed how great the fruits can be of a discussion rather than a tweet: in his interview with Woody Allen he plucked up the courage to ask how “such a plain man” has such luck with beautiful women. Allen’s readiness to give an answer shows that it is the interview that can test character and provide far more insight and entertainment than a blogger’s soliloquy. Not every interview has to put a President on trial and deliver ultimate truth, but we should strive to preserve a part of journalism that continues to prove its worth, even in the 21st century.