When people talk over each other, neither can be heard. But the fault that neither side was heard last night lies not with Donald Trump. That was his well-rehearsed strategy. Rather it lies with Chris Wallace. What he should have done was give Trump fair warning, and when Trump did it again, Wallace should have ended the debate right then and there. Fox may have fired him the next morning, but he’d have been offered a job at CNN or MSNBC within the hour. So the problem with these journalists-in-name-only (JINO’s) isn’t cowardice. It’s that they’re not really journalists at all.
To be fair, Wallace is the least JINO-esque of the JINO’s. JINO’s think they’ve done their job if they ask the question. It falls to the interviewee if, instead of answering it, he pivots to his stump speech. The real journalist, by contrast, just keeps repeating the question until the politician either answers it or makes explicit that he’s declining to do so. So not surprisingly, real journalists don’t get any takers, so as a consequence they find alternative employment. That’s why there are no real journalists working at CNN or MSNBC or Fox.
I’m teaching a seminar right now on collective action problems. I suspect there are JINO’s who’d prefer to be real journalists, but they’re faced with a collective action problem. If every journalist decided to be a real journalist instead of a JINO, politicians could either no longer agree to be interviewed or no longer pivot. We’d all be the better off for it. But all it takes is one would-be real journalist to defect, and we’d be back to where we started. So real journalism doesn’t just take balls. In fact it doesn’t take balls at all. It takes a coordinated effort, the kind of coordinated effort of which Americans, in so many walks of life, seem incapable.