Norah O'Donnell vs Cindy Sheehan

Y'know, there are times when someone who is angry can come across as really attractive, when that slow burn can come across as a really compelling aura around that person. When the comicbook artist Gil Kane gave an extensive interview for the Comics Journal, I realized that he was making a lot of criticisms that I had already heard from many other people, but..but this was Gil Kane, the famous, very highly competent draughtsman who penciled great adventure after great adventure. This was someone who knew what he was talking about! Accordingly, his views on comicbook art and writing at the time made a deep impression on me.

Norah O'Donnell's interview of Cindy Sheehan, on the other hand, left me favorably impressed with Ms Sheehan, but quite cold towards Ms O'Donnell. Yeah, partially it's because O'Donnell is a hard-line, right-wing conservative, but largely it was because O'Donnell was more interested in simply trashing Sheehan than she was in drawing out any useful or interesting informationt. O'Donnell demonstrated about a year ago that her demeanor was not at all what one would expect from an ostensibly objective journalist. She claimed that Coleen Rowley, who was running for Congress, was aligning herself with "anti-war extremists." Rowley immediately corrected O'Donnell, pointing out that her anti-war supporters were by no means extremist. O'Donnell's answer? " 'But, Coleen,' O'Donnell snapped back, 'they do oppose the war in Iraq, do they not?' " So apparently, according to O'Donnell, all one needs to be an "extremist," is to "oppose the war in Iraq."

Here is her first question on Hardball to Cindy Sheehan:

O'DONNELL: Let me begin by asking you, you know, Americans may hate the war, but they don't necessarily hate the president. How do you expect to get change by going around the world and trashing the president of the United States?

This is very clearly not the statement of someone who is in any way, shape or form an objective reporter. This is the statement of a staunch, hardline partisan-advocate. Nothing wrong with that per se, but she never mentioned her political affiliation and her position is theoretically one that calls for objectivity.

Sheehan goes on to explain that her calling President Bush "the biggest terrorist in the world" does not mean she hates him or is trashing him. She does mean that he fits his own definition of a terrorist.

SHEEHAN: Well, you know, he says a terrorist is somebody who kills innocent men, women, and children, and there has been over 100,000 innocent men, women, and children killed in Iraq on his orders.

After Sheehan points out (Correctly - the June 22-26 ABC News poll on Iraq policy shows 37% approval to 62% disapproval.) that "two-thirds of America disapprove[s] of George Bush and his policies in Iraq", O'Donnell replies with:

O'DONNELL: And nor, quite frankly, do you see members of Congress -- and you claim to not be in the fringes, to not be an extremist, and yet what members of Congress support you in your policy?

It's hardly fair to acknowledge that two-thirds of the American people support Sheehan's position, but to then go leaping to the conclusion that Sheehan is "in the fringes" because politicians are too cowardly to openly agree with the American people. If not many politicians are with Sheehan, that speaks very poorly of them. It says nothing about the rightness and justice of Sheehan's cause. If two-thirds of the American people are with Sheeehan, then how is Sheehan "in the fringes" or "an extremist"? By what criteria does she fit either definition?

After Sheehan lists the Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle who support her position, she is asked about Senators and comes up with John Kerry (D-MA):

O'DONNELL: John Kerry supports an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Did he tell you that?

This is one of those "When did you stop beating your wife?" questions. Sheehan has at no point said that she "supports an immediate withdrawal from Iraq." O'Donnell is pulling this question out of thin air. Sheehan then made it clear that she, Kerry and the " 'Out of Iraq' Congress[ional caucus] that has 70 members" are all in favor of a prompt withdrawal, but they all agree with O'Donnell that "There is no one in the United States Congress, Democrat, Republican, or Independent who would" support an immediate, precipitous withdrawal. But O'Donnell suggested that Sheehan wants just that.

O'Donnell calls Hugo Chavez (President of Venezuela) a "dictator." Sheehan replied that he has been elected eight times Sheehan didn't mention these other facts, but Chavez was thrown out of office in a coup and restored by the people of Venezuela and his current approval rating of 82.7% is only ten points lower than Bush's rating after 9-11 of 92%.

He has helped the poor people of America. He has sent aid to New Orleans. He has sold heating oil to disadvantaged people in America, in the United States of America at low cost, and he -- the people of his country love him.

O'Donnell had no answer for Sheehan's recitation of Chavez's good qualities and immediately switched the subject. Interestingly, O'Donnell points out that Saddam Hussein was also "democratically elected." Hussein was indeed supposedly elected, but victory margins close to 100% are normally due to tricks played by dictators. As Bush's last victory in 2004 was very considerably closer and far more questionable than Chavez's was, it might not be a good idea to push THAT idea too far, that elections can be manipulated.

Overall, O'Donnell took a scorched-earth approach, a highly combative attempt to make Sheehan look bad, to not give Sheehan the slightest credit (She immediately changed the subject every time Sheehan made a good point) and to try to get Sheehan flustered. She clearly approached the interview as a battle. Granted, Jon Stewart can be a tough interviewer, see his interviews of Bill Kristol and Rick Santorum (To name the most aggressive liberal interviewer on TV, and yes, it's pretty sad that a guy who recites fake news is more of an aggressive interviewer than most of the newspeople out there.), but Stewart's guests are generally given a fair chance to respond and Stewart tends to stick closely to the actual facts involved. Stewart doesn't go around simply making up wild accusations out of nothing. Stewart is more interested in generating light than heat, more interested in getting his guests to reveal things that are important and interesting than he is in simply attacking his guests and putting them down.

I strongly object to O'Donnell's mischaraterizations of Sheehan's positions, but I'd probably have to agree that my objection to her style is rooted in a personal preference for informative interviews as opposed to slash'n'burn attacks. I don't mind some aggressiveness, as I said earlier, some righteous anger can make the interviewer more attractive. The interviewer doesn't have to agree with the person being interviewed, but I think there's a bit of a difference between tough and demanding and between being just plain abusively nasty towards one's guest.

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