Last night's 60 Minutes was symmetrical: two controversial world figures- Russian President Vladimir Putin and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump- interviewed by two hostile journalist, Charlie Rose and Scott Pelley, who were determined to show the American audience that they could be tough on powerful men, though these were powerful men it was politically easy to be tough on.
This is not a defense of Putin or Trump. Yes, Putin cultivates an aggressive image as the man who will restore the Russian empire- while he says he just wants secure borders- and Trump calls for deporting 11 million illegal aliens with no explanation of how such a move could be possible. Rose and Pelley worked to expose any duplicity in these positions, but they worked harder than they needed to and gave the impression they were motivated, not by a journalistic search for truth, but by a need to improve their ratings.
Rose found it necessary to challenge Putin, not only on policy, but on every aspect of how the policy is expressed. He questioned Putin on the Russian incursion into Syria. Putin said Russia is supporting Syrian President Assad and fighting ISIS, and that the fight against ISIS in Syria should be viewed as a common fight with the U.S. This is helpful to hear, just so we know the Russian line, but Rose felt he needed to expose more about Putin:
Rose: But your pride in Russia means that you would like to see Russia play a bigger role in the world and this is just one example.
Putin: Well, it's not the goal in itself. I'm proud of Russia, that's true. And we have something to be proud of, but we do not have any obsession with being a superpower in the international arena.
Rose: But you are in part a major power because of the nuclear weapons you have. You are a force to be reckoned with.
Putin: I definitely hope so, otherwise why would we have nuclear weapons at all.
Putin grinned and often laughed at the questions about Russia's secret agenda, and there must have been millions of people who understood why. I read minds, so I had a special assist. Putin was thinking: "This man is trying to get me to admit that Russia is exactly like the U.S., meddling all over the world in a belief that it is protecting itself. Is Rose trying to make me point that out?"
Rose asked Putin if it's true as some say that he's a new tsar. Putin laughed and thought, "What a joke! What does he think I'm going to say, 'Yes'?"
Pelley's interview with Trump was similar, in that you could almost think Pelley was the one running for office. Trump's positions, of course, are ripe for challenge. How, for instance, could the country deport 11 million people? Pelley was right to point out the fantasy involved. What was striking about Pelley was the smirking and frequent scornful laughter that accompanied his questions, and the continual charges that everything Trump said was wrong. This was clear, undisguised bias against Trump, unexcused by Trump's shortcomings. It might be more acceptable if Pelley's attack mode were expressed equally towards every candidate, but it isn't. If you go back to Pelley's interviews with Obama when he first ran for president, you will not find Pelley demanding to know how an Obama presidency would improve America's race relations, an implicit promise of the campaign. Now that race relations in the country are significantly worse than before Obama, would Pelley demand from Obama that he explain his failure? Not in a million years, but why not?
All the world's prominent politicians are in a sense frauds, after all, simply because they present themselves as capable of solving problems that they can't. Prominent journalists are frauds too in the sense that they downplay the excessive power they have. They tell us whom to love and whom to scorn. But who loves and scorns journalists? Who keeps them honest?
Rose and Pelley deserve credit for standing up to powerful men who would intimidate many, but by showing bias and rudeness to these men, they showed their own susceptibility to the seductions of power.