I watched both Bob Costas’ interview with Jerry Sandusky on Rock Center and 20/20′s feature on Gabrielle Giffords last night. I imagine I’m not alone in doing that, and feeling stunned by the juxtaposition, but it’s worth pointing out the phenomenal journalism on display in both pieces last night.
I think there’s often a sense that toughness and an adversarial approach are signs of principled journalism, and Costas’ questions to Sandusky certainly illustrated why, in certain cases, that can be the only route to integrity. To hear Costas ask Sandusky about reports that he showered with a particular boy and conceded to his mother that his genitals may have touched the boy, and to hear Sandusky pause (as he did often), and say, “I can’t exactly recall what was said there. In terms of what I did say was that if he felt that way then I was wrong,” is immensely revealing, even if it doesn’t elicit specific information. Even if you’re Costas, even if you’re in a position of power, even if you’ve landed an interview that a sensible lawyer would have declined, even if your audience is sympathetic, it’s not exactly easy to ask someone if they’re a pedophile point-blank, but Costas did it. “You feel horrible,” Costas asked at one point. “Do you feel culpable?” “I’m not sure what you mean,” Sandusky told him. I imagine he’ll want to rehearse his answers better before he goes on trial.
By contrast, Diane Sawyer’s approach to Gabrielle Giffords was significantly gentler, listening patiently, helping her through answers and working with Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, to help her make herself understood. As a piece of explanatory journalism, the segment was, for me at least, an extremely useful look at the therapy that can help someone recover from brain injury, and the extent of the uncertainty involved. But the show also made clear that even if Giffords’ is still intellectually capable and curious, her ability to communicate remains significantly compromised. Sawyer could have asked directly — and she did ask Kelly if, given the brutality of the attack, he was reluctant to see his wife run again — but she didn’t necessarily have to in order to get the point across:
Both approaches were perfect for their story, and both pieces were examples of the kind of thing that television journalism does best. We got to see Giffords rebuilding her body and her brain, and then the results of that work in front of us. And Jerry Sandusky was a ghost, a man who can’t bring himself to show his face even as he ventured out in an astonishingly ill-conceived attempt to defend his reputation.