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Interview shopping is becoming an epidemic in local TV news

In legal circles, it is called judge shopping.

Lawyers look to get in front of judges who are more likely to be sympathetic to their client’s case.

Something similar has been practiced in journalism for years, with newsmakers involved in controversies looking for a sympathetic media ear to spin the situation they are in.

It has become a local epidemic lately.

It made me long for the days when people in authority – in government or out of it – thought they could benefit by standing up to tough questioners and gaining respect for doing so.

President Trump’s constant disparagement of the media seems to have enabled local newsmakers to avoid being asked tough questions by handpicking who they will talk to and criticizing the media members who stand up to them.

The president’s recent verbal battle with Jim Acosta led to the CNN reporter losing an important credential to cover the White House, which resulted in CNN going to court to try and get it back. CNN won the first round, with a federal judge appointed by Trump saying Acosta’s Fifth Amendment right to due process was violated.

The White House originally falsely claimed that Acosta had become physical with an intern trying to grab a microphone from him. The White House even sent out a doctored video to support the claim.

By the time the case went to court, the White House changed its tune and said the president can remove the credentials of any reporter he wants.

Multiple news organizations, including Trump’s preferred Fox News, supported Acosta and the CNN case even if they didn’t all agree with Acosta’s style, which can be viewed as combative or even rude.

However, local attorney Paul Cambria said last week in a WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) interview before the case went to court that the president would likely win if his lawyers just said it would allow another CNN reporter to attend briefings and press conferences instead of Acosta.

In other words, Trump should be allowed to choose who can cover him.

Cambria is a First Amendment specialist so I didn’t doubt his view. But a federal judge preliminary sided with Acosta in a procedural ruling. If Cambria is right, aggressive journalists will be in deep trouble.

The last thing the country needs is allowing people in power to select who in the media can talk to them. It rarely goes well for the public.

Rep. Chris Collins wasn’t available to most media outlets during his race against Democrat Nathan McMurray. In a post-election interview, he said that was by design because the media wasn’t part of his strategy.

However, he did sit for an interview with WIVB-TV (Channel 4) anchor-reporter Dave Greber, who went soft on him.

On election night, Collins took some shots at the media before mentioning he “answered the media when they are reasonable.”

The last thing the media wants is having an interview subject define what is reasonable.

Collins mentioned being interviewed by Buffalo News political reporter Robert McCarthy, Channel 4 anchor-reporter Dave Greber and WBEN anchor Susan Rose, who he called Ross.

Collins, who has been more accessible since Election Day, may have thought he was complimenting the reporters for being “reasonable.” However, I doubt any reporter would feel that way.

In an interview with WKBW-TV reporter (Channel 7) Ed Drantch after Collins’ apparent victory before absentee ballots were counted, the congressman played the “what about” game when asked why he didn’t debate McMurray.

Collins asked Drantch why he and other media members didn’t ask Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins why he didn’t debate his opponent. Drantch tried to bring the question back to Collins, but the congressman continued to argue there was a double standard applied to Higgins.

At that point, I wished Drantch had answered that Higgins wasn’t in a competitive race and, more importantly, isn’t under federal indictment. Collins was playing the false equivalency game.

Another authority figure recently choosing his questioner was Bishop Richard J. Malone. Malone is facing calls for his resignation because of his handling of the sexual abuse scandal surrounding the Buffalo Diocese.

He declined an interview with “60 Minutes” but agreed to one with Channel 4’s Don Postles. Postles is on one of the bishop’s committees, a clear conflict of interest that I doubt Postles’ boss knew about before the interview. Postles acted tough but was anything but during the interview.

After some initial pointed questions that the bishop easily batted away, Postles had Bishop Malone show him the supposedly spartan place where he was moving after the Diocese agreed to sell the mansion he has been living in.

That display seemed much less sympathetic when Channel 7 reporter Charlie Specht carried a report several days later saying that more than $200,000 of upgrades were made at Malone’s new digs.

In a way, Specht has become Malone’s own Jim Acosta.

When the bishop held what was labeled a news conference but started with an hour filibuster by Diocese lawyers, Specht was the first reporter to ask tough questions. He kept asking them with the Diocese spokesman by his side apparently trying to stop him.

When Specht wanted to know why Malone was avoiding Channel 7, the bishop played the Trump and Collins card and suggested he didn’t like the “approach” Channel 7 was using in covering the story. Malone added he thought the approach would make “anyone wary, I would think.”

Specht, who has been the local TV news leader on the sexual abuse allegations story, tried to make the most of finally being able to ask the bishop follow-up questions. When the bishop tried to ask his lawyers for guidance, Specht angrily asked if the bishop or the lawyers were running the diocese.

Acosta might have been proud.

Specht has done exceptional work covering the scandal and should win some awards for it. But while understanding his frustrations, I thought the reporter went too far in his tone in asking a question that seemed more like a statement. He might have even made Malone’s case about Channel 7 being less than fair. Some viewers might have even thought that Specht made Malone a sympathetic figure for a minute or two.

However, reporters aren't supposed to be cheerleaders and I’d rather a reporter go too far than be one.



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