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Torpedoing the Debt: Perils of Going Live

by Edward Schumacher-Matos
Aug 1, 2011

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Edward Schumacher-Matos

Congressional leaders had reached an agreement with President Obama and it seemed this morning like we were finally nearing the end of the contentious debt battle. Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition, and all the NPR staff had been doing an admirable job in recent weeks of fairly presenting the tricky ideological and political divisions.

Then came Inskeep's interview and last question — live — to Republican Rep. David Dreier of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee:

"Given that your speaker, in his words, said months ago that it would be a serious problem not to raise the debt ceiling, why did House Republicans spend this summer threatening to torpedo the economy by defaulting?"

It was a leading question, a virtual sucker punch. Some House Republicans have said they were willing for the nation to go into default, but none that I know of said that were actually willing to "torpedo the economy." Rightly or wrongly — and few economists of any stripe supported them — the hardest core Republicans on the debt have maintained that default would not be the doomsday many had predicted and that its impact would be preferable to that of the current debt.

More than 20 listeners wrote to complain. Most of them, like Shelly Rogers of Ta Vergne, TN, called the interview "hostile." Some, like Fielding Freed of Charleston, SC, called it, "rude." For many, it was proof of a "liberal bias."

Inskeep now wishes he could rephrase the question.

In the live interview at hand, it's totally fair to say that I should have been more nuanced in the final question. House Republicans have expressed many views. For example, some House Republicans have expressed doubt that a failure to raise the debt ceiling would be that bad, such as Allen West on NPR a few weeks ago; some have acknowledged that the ceiling must be raised but that Republicans could only do this if they were granted concessions on spending, as Dave Camp said on NPR; Jason Chaffetz said on NPR that the debt simply needed to be tackled, even though he agreed that August 2 was a 'very real date;' Michelle Bachman declared the debt ceiling should not be raised at all, unless there were big spending cuts and a repeal of Obamacare...

The quote I cited from Speaker Boehner was accurate; he said it would cause problems not to raise the ceiling. Still the negotiations have come very close to the deadline, and my question was how that happened.

In the live interview, Congressman Dreier took issue with the question, and argued that the House leaders never wanted to default but needed to work with new people who have "changed the Congress." I think that was a fair answer.

Inskeep is a consummate professional, which is one reason why so many listeners in the morning trust him. The slip-up is an example of what can happen in a live interview when a host, for the benefit of listeners, tries to pin down political leaders, many of them consummate professionals like Dreier. They are adept at using the interview to spin and frame to their advantage.

Some listeners didn't like it that Inskeep twice sought to cut off Dreier. In a live interview, cutting off a speaker is normal, often necessary because time is running out, and almost always is hard to do. The first time Inskeep failed, and while his treatment was less-than-his-normal elegant the second time, it wasn't hostile.

What happened was that Dreier had diverted from the interview to respond to a charge that Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri had made to co-host Renee Montagne in the interview that aired just before Dreier. "So it's not perfect, but we have avoided the massive dismantling of Medicare that the House Republicans wanted," McCaskill said, a charge that Montagne let go unchallenged.

"I don't know of a single Republican who wants to eliminate Medicare," Dreier said, in an extended response to what McCaskill had said.

"Well, let's, let's grant that changes to Medicare are on the table...we can argue over how to describe them, that's fair to say," said Inskeep as he sought hurriedly to get back to his own interview.

Inskeep rightly noted to me that he has been at least as tough in questioning Democrats in recent days on the debt debate.

"I did ask a hard question of Congressman Dreier. In the past few days I have also asked Bill Daley why the President was supporting a bill that didn't exist; and asked David Plouffe if the deal was a surrender, to give other examples. Hard questions for everybody. My job is to ask and to listen to the answers, often live."

Dreier, meanwhile, was allowed to fully make his points, which was most important.

Read Steve Inskeep's full response below:

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