Watching Bob Costas interrogate the unseen, unrepentant Penn State shower jockey Jerry Sandusky on NBC's Rock Center Monday night -- and then in replay every hour since -- was a worthwhile reminder of how good Costas is when he's allowed to be. He drilled Sandusky, pardon the expresh, for quibbling about his inappropriate behavior with those kids in the Penn State locker room.
Horseplay? Towel snapping? To quote Jon Stewart's reaction to Sandusky's responses in the interview, "Are you fucking kidding us?"
Costas, with only 15 minutes to prep for the live, on-air phone chat -- he thought he was going to talk to Sandusky's attorney, who did a last-minute hand-off to Sandusky -- was tough and thorough. "Are you denying that you had any inappropriate sexual contact with any of these underage boys?" Costas asked. "How could somebody think they saw something as extreme and shocking as that when it hadn't occurred, and what would possibly be their motivation to fabricate it? ... It seems that if all of these accusations are false, you are the unluckiest and most persecuted man that any of us has ever heard about."
Sandusky kept proclaiming his innocence, while admitting he touched young boys here and there and did "enjoy young people." His awkward pause after Costas asked "Are you sexually attracted to young boys, to underage boys?" kicked up the creep factor into Silkwood shower range.
As Stewart noted on The Daily Show, "You can't even bring yourself to lie emphatically?" An innocent man's answer, said Stewart, would be something more like "'Good God, no! Sexually attracted? I'm not!' It's like in that phone conversation, [Sandusky was] actually fighting the urge to come clean."
Television isn't always the best lie detector and all we had of Sandusky was his voice. But wow, what a stunning few minutes of live TV. Costas, unlike so many TV interviewers, went right in there, without hesitation and without worrying if it would exclude him from future interviews.
That's the problem with the interviewing business now, the bargaining away of truth and hard-ass journalism in favor of the congenial back-and-forth and the promise of future "exclusives" (though that word has lost its meaning as far as most TV interviews go).
We've almost forgotten what a real interview looks like on television. What we see on the morning news shows, afternoon infotainment reports and late-night talk panels are games of softball and commercials disguised as interviews. Everyone plays along nicely, setting up the clips and mentioning the new books, but not bringing up anything that might screw the pooch for subsequent appearances by Mr. or Ms. Big-time Celeb. Publicists make these heinous deals, which TV shows go right along with. Print interviews aren't immune either. When's the last time you read a scathing profile of a movie star in Vanity Fair? Probably not since this one by Lynn Hershberg, writing about Courtney Love in 1992.
Politicians who stumble in televised interviews now blame "gotcha questions." If only journalists really "gotched" anymore. Biggest gotcha from the last presidential election? Katie Couric lobbing a Nerf at Sarah Palin, asking her what newspapers and magazines she reads.
This week's "gotcha" was the Milwaukee newspaper editor asking Herman Cain an easy one about Libya. As Cain's eyeballs spun around in his skull, you could predict his next-day accusations of "gotchas" and "out-of-context" hectoring. So far no reporter has been able to ask him anything other than general questions about the sexual harassment cases settled with women who worked for him.
When Maria Bartiromo tried to do that during a televised "debate" among GOP candidates the other night, the audience booed her and he sidestepped the issue once again. Maybe someone else will have the guts to do it better soon. Perhaps David Letterman, who does a good job puncturing the pomposity of politicians on his show and who has had his own problems in the past with sexual dalliances in the workplace.
The Costas/Sandusky interview reminded me of Martin Bashir's TV special about Michael Jackson on ABC in 2003. Bashir, who'd conducted the famous "there are three of us in this marriage" sit-down with Princess Diana for ITV's Panorama in 1995, spent eight months following Jackson with cameras. There was controversy about the editing of the final interview -- unused footage released later by Jackson's people showed Bashir complimenting Jackson for the "spiritual quality" of Neverland Ranch -- but he did ask the question everyone wanted to hear Jackson answer.
Bashir: "But is it really appropriate for a 44-year-old man to share a bedroom with a child that is not related to him at all?"
Jackson: "That's a beautiful thing."
And forever after, he was "Wacko Jacko."
Martin Bashir's "Living with Michael Jackson" interview