I did a lot of interviews in my show’s 17 year run, so I know full well the pressure to grab that juicy exclusive—and Rachel Dolezal’s story certainly is that. It’s sensational, timely, controversial, and—holiest of all—trending on Twitter. There’s nothing wrong with chasing an exclusive, but landing it often comes with a price. Producers are often pressured to avoid certain topics and focus narrowly on those most favorable to the interviewee. Watching the Dolezal interview, I suspect that was the case. Clearly, my show had an entertainment component and it was hardly “news.” Nor was the Dolezal story – it’s a lifestyle story. Sure it’s easy for me to cast stones no longer being a prisoner of my overnight ratings. My point is bigger and goes to the heart of the TV business today.
The gist of Today’s interview was, “Set the record straight: are you white or black?” Sure that’s fun, gossipy, built-for-Twitter question, but it ignores the fundamental issue here: “Why should we trust anything you say if you’ve been lying for a decade?!” The other foundational issue goes to self-identification, and it’s one that, as a father of four bi-racial children, I’ve done a lot of thinking about. My kids could identify as white, black or bi-racial and be honest in doing so. I think people should have some freedom of self-identification provided that identification is built on a platform of honesty.
While she was living as white, Dolezal sued Howard University for discrimination based on the fact she was a white pregnant woman. Then while she was living as black, she reported numerous hate crimes which law enforcement believes may have been fabricated. She’s been flip-flopping her race and fabricating bias in every identity she chooses. And yet instead of asking “Have you been dishonest?” Today preferred to focus on, “What race are you today?” That’s like Wells Fargo asking a bank-robber, “Are you withdrawing or depositing?”
Here’s another one Today should have asked Ms. Dolezal, who’d applied for the civilian police oversight board in Spokane. “Ms. Dolezal, given you’ve frequently cast yourself as a victim of racial bias seemingly at every possible turn and, some say on fabricated reports, if you’d been presented with a case in which a black citizen alleged discrimination against a white officer, would you immediately have assumed there was racial bias or would you have examined whether the evidence supported a claim of racial bias? If your application for a position of public trust contained knowingly false statements, how can citizens on the one hand, and the police on the other rely on your integrity?”
MSNBC, NBC’s cable outlet, went the touchy feely direction, asking questions like, How do you fit in? and How do you feel?—rather than taking her to task for her history of dishonesty.
Maybe it’s just poor reporting. Maybe NBC just forgot the hardballs. But I suspect there’s something else at play: the hidden cost of the exclusive. An interviewee’s lawyers will often instruct their client to avoid certain questions, which is fine and common practice. The problem is when lawyers tell a producer what they can and cannot ask. It poses an ethical dilemma. A journalist’s job is to get the truth. A producer or reporter should channel her inner Woodward/Bernstein and exclaim, “We ask the questions here, not you!”
But let’s face it, this is the age of infotainment, and to live in it, journalists need ratings. Say “shove off” to the various flacks involved and they might take their client up the street to Fox and Friends or GMA. Television is a competitive game, which plays out not just in yearly ratings, but in the day-to-day booking wars. Being first to sit down with Rachel Dolezal is a big deal. It’s a cross-platform victory, which means big traffic to the website, replays on MSNBC, and a nice boost on the Nightly News. Today has to stay competitive, with far more players on the morning landscape than ten years ago and GMA breathing down their neck in the ratings war.
NBC is by no means the only culprit. I think Fox bungled the Duggar story, debating whether the release of his police report was legal – where there is truly an open question – rather than whether it was morally right, given its release sparked a vital conversation on protecting underage victims of sexual assault.
In TV, even when we delve into the fun, bizarre, and lighthearted, we owe it to our audience to ask the tough questions. And if we’re unwilling, whether because it might lose us a juicy exclusive or hurt us in the ratings—we at least owe it to our audience to tell them the truth—tell them, “This is infotainment—where there’s a lot of money to be made in sensationalizing, telling you what you want to hear, sowing division. If we can’t admit that, then we’re no different than Rachel Dolezal—lying and grandstanding, all the way to the bank.
I had the benefit of owning my show, so I had control over it. Certainly, if the right opportunity presented, I’d consider a return on cable news, but I’m not interested in pandering or carrying a party line – my interest is in following stories where they naturally lead and starting conversations that get at the foundational problems that we too often ignore. That cannot be done by catering to the lowest common denominator and telling people what they want to hear.
Montel Williams is an emmy award winning television personality who formerly hosted the Montel Williams Show for 17 seasons. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he is a fierce advocate for active and retired military and also a noted healthcare and disability rights advocate. Follow him on twitter @montel_williams