Anderson Cooper grilled the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jafari, in a long and hostile 14-minute interview earlier this week. Every question is tough, combative, and aimed at forcing the ambassador to account for his government’s brutal treatment of peaceful protesters. Kudos to Cooper for turning the screws. But let’s be frank here. One can hardly envision a circumstance in which Cooper were to grill an Obama administration official with the same critical and dogged tone. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Cooper — or any other CNN host — to repeatedly push Sec. Clinton to explain her government’s violation of the War Powers Act on Libya, or to seriously pressure her to justify her administration’s continued policy of denying habeus corpus rights to Bagram detainees. Nor could we conceive of a circumstance in which Cooper would take Obama to task for the existence of CIA-run black sites in Somalia, for instance, or his authorization of extrajudicial killings of American citizens suspected of terrorism (like Anwar al-Awlaki.)
If we look at Cooper’s 2009 interview with President Obama, we find that we were right not to expect too much. Cooper, forgetting his journalistic hat back home, dons his baby gloves for our Commander-in-Chief. Note the chummy tenor of the questions and the gentle nature of his follow-ups. The contrast between the Obama and Jafari interviews couldn’t be sharper. In fact, I can’t say I have ever seen a CNN interview with a Democratic official that was 1/10th as combative as Cooper’s recent exchange with Jafari. Not 1/10th. Most take a rather meandering, friendly tone. Consider Wolf Blitzer’s interview earlier this year with Sec. Clinton. Any tough questions on Libya? Meh. Any serious critiques of our Afghanistan policy? Maybe next time. It is just no longer controversial to point out that CNN repeatedly fails to do even the most basic job in checking this administration’s authority. One tunes in to The Worldwide Leader in News to watch the stimulating saga of the Kardashian marriage or the drama of a small town murder mystery, not serious and probing interviews with administration officials. Oh, network execs are quite happy to allow their anchors to rip to shreds a cornered foreign diplomat of an isolated and widely hated country – one of the most unanimously distrusted and condemned in the world. That’s easy. And, hey, it might even make them look for a few minutes as though they’re operating a serious journalistic operation over there.
But when it comes to getting tough on this administration, CNN wants nothing to do with it. When the Wikileaks saga unfolded, CNN’s anchors leveled frequent and harsh denunciations of the group’s actions, often harsher than those of administration spokesmen themselves. It was interesting to note how CNN showed more of an interest in cheerleading the government’s secretive and authoritarian line than in protecting a primary tool of its own profession – the leaking of classified information. Wolf Blitzer was furious. So was Jessica Yellin. But their outrage makes sense. CNN considers themselves a part of the Democratic establishment, as chummy with this administration, as defenders of its cause. One can hardly find an interview with a senior administration official that even hints at being combative. Only when confronted with a disgraced official of one of the most isolated, brutal, and authoritarian countries in the world, they’re finally ready to get tough, ask the hard questions, and call their guest out on his bullshit. Is that really what it must take?