There were no degrees in the field, simply a major within what was then known as "liberal arts." What courses were taught mostly concentrated on a few simple rules for reporting and a great deal about how the ink and paper profits were generated and the intricacies of syndication.
One of those few hard rules was to maintain at least the appearance of objectivity, or at least non-partisanship. The secret of this technique lies in keeping questions simple and encouraging subjects of interview to unwind and give details of their case or cause. The model of the taciturn reporter as portrayed by Spencer Tracy or Glen Ford became the style, both in print and radio, with Ed Morrow the living proof.
I blame Watergate for the dilution of both the social and operational realities of the news business, along with computers and — of late — cell phones. Once, scruffy reporters hit the streets and alleys of their cities or hung interminably in the corridors of city hall to get the lowdown on the latest pork barrel project for the mayor's political pals. Nowadays newsrooms are long on graduate women with laptops on their desk and a phone glued to their ear, chasing hearsay and rumor for the next story. After a hard deadline they order white wine and a green salad rather than whiskey, in cute cafes instead of smelly saloons patronized by bookies, hookers and other people of character.
The new journalism has also given us the practitioners of the long and loaded question. Chris Mathews, who cannot seem to frame any query in less than several disconnected paragraphs, often lays out one side of an argument completely while asking some victim whether he thinks his idea is accurate. O'Reilly, Hannity, et al, and Franken on the left, all practice the art of question as diatribe, thereby limiting the answer to some aspect of the accusations.
Fortunately, things have changed, thanks to Bill Clinton and the overtly sandbagged interview he held with Chris Wallace on the Fox Network. Wallace had agreed to talk to the former president about his Global Initiative program for hands-on solutions to various challenges that seem beyond the reach of governments. Instead Wallace led with a statement that many listeners had asked him to ask why he, President Clinton, hadn't done more to get Osama bin Laden during his term. The assumption that he hadn't done enough and the question of why not was a direct political attack and the ensuing confrontation changed the rules forever.
First Clinton fought back by identifying the Fox Net and Wallace as tools of the Rupert Murdock right wing propaganda machine. Then he dealt with the history of his battle with Al Qaeda in detail, finally accusing the Bush administration of failing to take any action to stop the terror plot that eventually turned into 9/11. Wallace asked a question, and he got an answer.
The real victory, however was the refusal to let Chris Wallace change the subject or interrupt the flow of Clinton's perfectly organized explanation. Clinton has given permission to every victim of ambush journalism to fight back. Make the answer the story, not the question. Guy VanDerJak, a former Republican Congressman, used to give seminars to candidates in which he advised them to select any answer they wanted and ignore the questions entirely, based on the fact that most news never shows the reporter asking but only the subject replying.
Clinton's hammering of Wallace reinforces that rule. Hopefully other Democrats can learn the lesson, and reporters, too.
"Travus T. Hipp" is a 40-year veteran radio commentator with six stations in California carrying his daily version of the news and opinions. "The Poor Hippy's Paul Harvey," Travus is a member of the Nevada Broadcasters Hall of Fame, but unemployable in the Silver State due to his eclectic political views.