Tuned In

The Morning After: The Good, the Sad and the Odd, in a Night of Big Interviews

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I had to save Gabby Giffords for last.

Giffords gave her first TV interview on ABC Monday night, the same night that NBC’s Bob Costas talked former Penn State defensive co-ordinator Jerry Sandusky, for Rock Center with Brian Williams, on the charges of child rape against Sandusky. The interviews aired in the same time slot—one a moving story of struggle and personal strength, the other a depressing tale of exploitation and inaction—and I thought I should end the night on some kind of hopeful note if I was going to sleep at all.

Costas’s interview with Sandusky was eerie, sickening, and excellent, given the circumstances: (1) that Sandusky did the interview by phone, limiting the give-and-take and nonverbal cues and (2) that Costas was interviewing a man who was denying the heinous charges against him, and so was not about to offer any confessions or volunteer much information.

In a situation like this, some journalists feel they need to either lecture (to prove their bona fides to the audience) or ingratiate (to cozy up to the subject). Costas gave a lesson in how to ask tough, necessary questions without soapboxing or ceding ground. As Sandusky’s answers grew sketchier and more disturbing—he conceded showering with boys and “horsing around” while denying having sex with them—Costas confronted Sandusky with the charges from numerous sources and laid it out plain: “If all of these accusations are false, you are the unluckiest and most persecuted man that any of us has ever heard about.”

And video or no, the interview painted an unsettling picture. The most dramatic moment followed a simple question: “Are you sexually attracted to underage boys?” Sandusky’s answer? Not “no.” Not “Yes, but I’ve never acted on it / am seeking help” &c. Instead it was weirdly tentative: “Am I sexually attracted to underage boys. Sexually attracted?” That Sandusky eventually, meanderingly denied it—”I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. But no, I’m not sexually attracted to young boys”—didn’t erase the mental image of Sandusky fielding this simple question and having to take time to think about his answer.

I can’t speak to the legal strategy in giving the interview (Sandusky’s attorney, Joseph Amendola, also appeared and suggested that the defense would rely on undercutting the claims that have come forth so far), or its implications for a prosecution. But Costas’ interview was direct, tough and deeply depressing—and good for him.

ABC, meanwhile, spent an hour on the story of recovering Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived being shot in the head at a meet-and-greet with voters earlier in the year. We saw Giffords shortly after the shooting, followed her through the long—and surprisingly successful—rehab process (using music, fascinatingly, as a prod to therapy and language recovery), and saw her show verve and flashes of humor in a sit-down with Diane Sawyer (beginning the interview by fixing the news anchor’s hair).

Premliminary ratings word suggests that about three times more viewers tuned in to this interview than Costas’ with Sandusky, and it’s not surprising. Giffords’ story was not all cheer and happy endings; we saw the pain and frustration of the long therapy process, the slow return of movement, the excruciating search for words, the unfathomability of the brain and its damage. For all that—and for all the remaining questions about whether Giffords will be able to continue her political career—it was good, right now, to see a story about decency, resilience and life willing itself on.

There was yet another big interview in the same hour, on Fox News, whose Greta Van Susteren, who had on Gloria Cain to discuss the sexual harassment charges against her husband Herman Cain. It was the kind of interview that seemed necessary—at least from a political damage-control perspective—and utterly superfluous.

I mean this as no knock against Gloria Cain, who is not running for office, who spoke plainly about the difficulties that come up in a long marriage, and who cannot be having a pleasant time with this regardless. But as far as dispelling the ugly charges is concerned, her discussing her four-decades-plus with her husband is close to irrelevant: would anyone expect most wives not to be surprised by sex-harassment charges against their spouses? Politically, the interview might at best shore up the resolve of voters who were still sticking with Cain anyway.

But whatever the truth here and whatever the politics, seeing a publicity-shy woman go on stage to answer sex charges against her husband after 43 years of marriage just makes me sad. I think I need to watch that Gabby Giffords interview again.