Interviewing on television is a tough business.
Sometimes you're good, as ABC's Barbara Walters was last week in a candid chat with actor Christopher Reeve that displayed his great will, courage, intelligence and even sense of humor in facing the paralysis he suffered in a riding accident.
Sometimes you're bad, as Walters was this week when Robert Shapiro sounded off to her about his rift with two fellow members of the O.J. Simpson defense team, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and F. Lee Bailey. When Shapiro told Walters he would never again speak to Bailey, for example, you wondered why. Apparently she didn't, for she never asked.
Sometimes you're a bully, creating only noise, as "CNN & Co." host Mary Tillotson did Thursday morning with her guests, USC law professor Susan Estrich and Atlanta radio talk-show host Coz Carson, in yet another post-mortem of the Simpson verdicts. Carson, who endorsed Simpson's acquittal, was ganged up on by Estrich and Tillotson (shouldn't the host at least pretend to be objective?), the latter at one point shouting her protest against the verdicts: "He's free, free, free from prison!"
Still worse, though, sometimes you're a nonentity, a virtual missing person, as "CBS This Morning" co-host Paula Zahn was Wednesday while interviewing Bailey.
Bailey was Bailey, as always so puffed up with himself that he appeared to have had helium for breakfast. Intimidated and overmatched, Zahn was Zahn: bright, sensitive, pleasant, but totally unequipped for this kind of duty, given the way her subject's provocative comments appeared to whiz by her.
We pick up the taped interview at the midway point.
Zahn: "A lot of folks don't understand how Johnnie Cochran can call O.J. Simpson a good and decent man. A confirmed wife batterer . . ."
Bailey: "Oh come on, a confirmed wife batterer! That's a creature of the press! This is not a wife batterer, this is a guy who at 3 o'clock in the morning, on New Year's morning after a party with too much to drink, like most of them are, got in an argument with her and hit her, and that was very, very wrong. But to transpose that into a homicidal intent is a creature of Chris Darden and the United States press, and the most unfair thing that's ever been done to a defendant."
Incredibly, Zahn did not challenge Bailey on any of this, instead zooming on to her next topic. Instead, here's what she should have asked:
You transposed my question. I didn't mention homicidal intent. I said he was a wife batterer. In your opinion, how many times does a man have to hit his wife before he becomes a batterer? And what do you mean "like most of them are"? Are you excusing Simpson's behavior by saying that men will be men when they have too much to drink?
Zahn next turned to the Simpson verdicts' message, "To some Americans, there are certain people who are above . . . the law." Following a clip of Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden abruptly ending his post-verdicts statement to the press after being overwhelmed by emotion, she continued:
Zahn: "I'm talking about Chris Darden breaking down as he was trying to hold a press conference, saying that justice was not served."
Bailey: "I think that's a pretty poor loser. I mean, Chris Darden has been the spike throughout this case, and I think what he did . . . is a poor measure of the man. I think he's a man without a country. I don't think that, after the things he said, based on the evidence he had, that the black community is gonna provide him a home."
Zahn did not follow up that Baileyism, either, but again moved on. Here's what she should have come back with:
What do you mean, "what he did"? Are you saying that he's an Uncle Tom because he is an African American who prosecuted another African American? What did he say or do that would so anger other African Americans? What do you mean when you say, "He's a man without a country"? And who are you to speak for the "black community"?
Zahn next turned to emotional public statements made by Fred Goldman, father of victim Ronald Lyle Goldman, including his enraged attack on Cochran for appearing to equate racist former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman with Hitler, and his comments on the trial's outcome.
Zahn: "He was overwhelmed with emotion. . . ."
Zahn: "He said, clearly, justice was not done . . . that he was going to devote the rest of his life to creating judicial reform."
Bailey: "Oh, I'm really not impressed by that because, although I have great sympathy for his father, I think he allowed himself to be used. . . ."
Zahn: "By whom?"
Bailey: "By the prosecution."
Zahn: "In what way?"
Bailey: "All of a sudden, every time they were in trouble, he popped up on television in some tearful denigration of the defense, to the point where he called Johnnie Cochran a thing, an animal, sick and so forth; and what he doesn't appreciate is the fact that he has thrown his alliance with the people who have prevented bringing his son's killer to book. I hope he can find his way out of that, because it is pathetic."
Naturally, Zahn did not dwell on Bailey's response, swiftly concluding the interview by noting that Bailey says "he thinks the real killers were after money possibly owed to them . . . from a drug deal."
She should have responded by asking Bailey:
Are you saying that Fred Goldman's public statements were orchestrated by the prosecution, that he was manipulated or that his tears, his grief, his anger were not genuine? And even accepting the argument that Goldman overreacted to Cochran's Fuhrman-Hitler reference, can you not empathize with the despair of a man who has lost his son? Are you comfortable with applying "pathetic" to such a man? And by that do you mean his actions should be viewed with compassion or contempt?
And finally, Mr. Bailey, why are you such a jerk?