Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
At this moment, we don’t know exactly why Donald Trump abruptly ended an interview with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes.”
Lots of people have walked out of interviews with “60 Minutes,” (it was a highlight of “60 Minutes” newsman Mike Wallace’s career), and we typically find out what happened at about 7:10 p.m. ET on Sunday night.
But those interview subjects were not less than two weeks away from a presidential election; nor were they less than 36 hours away from the last presidential debate of this campaign. If whatever happened between Trump and “60 Minutes” was in any way newsworthy (and it’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t be), why hasn’t CBS News revealed exactly what occurred? “60 Minutes” is a classic prime-time show and a favorite with viewers after 52 years. And the network obviously has something potent to promote to build audience for this week’s show.
But the program is also part of an organization called CBS News and its primary purpose is to cover the news — and to break it whenever they can. Which is what they should do in this case — right now. And that’s why they should release the newsworthy portions of the interview immediately.
So far, CBS hasn’t said much about this episode, other than to defend Stahl, whom Trump and his backers have predictably attacked. Trump also charged her with wantonly not wearing a mask, an act that in all other cases seems to be a badge of honor in Trump world.
A person familiar with the situation told CNN a photo released by the White House showing Stahl without a mask was taken right after the interview, and so Stahl had not yet replaced the mask she took off to conduct the interview (at a distance, of course.)
The threat of a selective release of interview material by the White House is another reason for CBS to get the facts out immediately. No news organizations can allow their work to be preempted that way.
In many cases, for pre-taped interviews any release of what was taped, by either side, would violate an agreement between the parties that the interview was specifically reserved for its broadcast day. CBS News did not respond to questions if that was the case here, but if it was, the terms have likely already been blown up. After Trump’s alleged walk out was leaked, the White House went out publicly with their defense.
Releasing the interview footage could also impact Thursday’s presidential debate, especially if the contretemps between Trump and Stahl was over a question of substance that the President refused to answer — say, something about his pandemic response or the recent New York Times report of Trump owning a bank account in China, or how his administration lost the parents of more than 500 kids separated from their families at the US border three years ago. Debate moderator Kristen Welker would almost surely want to follow up on that Thursday night.
If, on the other hand, it was more a matter of Trump getting fed up with being interrogated by a certain kind of determined reporter — as he has with others, like Savannah Guthrie of NBC or Welker, whom he disparaged as biased in advance — it would still tell potential voters something about his character, if not necessarily his policies.
That’s also newsworthy.