Denzel made journalist Katie Couric ‘uncomfortable’ with her questions
Should journalists feel ‘shaken’ when interviewees challenge their questions?
When I am in need of a good laugh, one of the first places I go is the “Overheard in a Newsroom” Twitter account. I have not worked in a traditional newsroom since 2013. (I still work in a journalism capacity for private companies, mainly law firms, online news startups, marketing projects and retail publications.) But there’s something about trading jabs and hearing the most random comments yelled across a newsroom that warms my heart. There are parts of traditional journalism that I absolutely adore and other parts that leave much to be desired. One of the primary cons is the public largely blaming journalism for damn near everything. Someone robs a bank: It’s journalism’s fault. A politician starts asking people to swallow disinfectant: It’s journalism’s fault.
But we take those punches and keep on going — asking uncomfortable questions, brushing off rude answers and pressing to get the real answer instead of copying and pasting what someone on Wikipedia said. You know what else we’ll sometimes do behind the scenes? Complain to our peers about how wild or odd our interviewees are, especially in entertainment (and political) journalism. You tell me an artist trending on Twitter — from big names to small ones — and I’ll probably have a story I will not tell you. (And sometimes I will.) I can say with certainty that as a former entertainment reporter, there have been a handful of writers, rappers and singers who single-handedly made me stop being a fan. But with that said, there are plenty more pleasant ones who made me more of a fan for being absolutely delightful. (Hello, Heather Headley and Ne-Yo!)
However, as an interviewer who has covered just about every topic one reads in a newspaper — minus minimal sports news — I’m a bit perplexed by journalist Katie Couric’s complaint about actor Denzel Washington. It’s not so much that she was “uncomfortable” by him challenging a question of hers, but that she held onto this feeling for 16 years.
For those who are unaware of the trending topic, Katie Couric was “uncomfortable” with Denzel Washington challenging her line of questions about “Hollywood folks” getting involved in politics. But from the 2004 dateline interview, there was already some banter going on regarding everything from the evils of money, Jesus, communism and the War in Iraq. In other words, this group discussion (with Meryl Streep and Jonathan Demme) wasn’t lightweight to begin with.
But the part that Katie Couric was up in arms about was this:
After reading this back-and-forth and hearing that Katie Couric felt “the experience was ‘uncomfortable’ and said she believes Washington ‘totally misconstrued a question I asked and kind of jumped all over me,’” my first thought was: “I can think of five more interviews with celebrities I personally interviewed that were way more tense than this.” I didn’t start working in traditional journalism until 2008 (and 2005, if you count independent sites). Meanwhile Katie Couric has been doing this since the ’90s. But never mind me. Journalist Gayle King literally got spit on during an interview with singer R. Kelly and joked about it on Showtime’s “Desus & Mero.” This happened all while the Chicago artist (who is currently in prison for multiple sex crime charges) was shouting and punching the air, and she kept her cool.
If there was ever an entertainment interview to be “uncomfortable” in, that’d be the one. Now this doesn’t mean that journalists should just expect to be put in awkward circumstances, but anyone who isn’t a newbie to the industry shouldn’t be particularly surprised when they are.
Still though, the bigger question for me is why Denzel Washington having a semantics debate seemed to rile her up more than so many other topics in her wheelhouse. One obvious example is the entire case with fellow journalist Matt Lauer and an alleged rape incident from the 2014 Sochi Olympics. I will not comment on that particular case one way or the other, without sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. But again, that should make the average person more “uncomfortable” than an actor picking a debate about the use of the phrases “Hollywood folk” and “one of those people.”
Even when Katie Couric was on “The Wendy Williams Show*,” she brushed off the under-the-desk button “perk” in some NBC office dwellings — including Matt Lauer’s office. In her own words, “I think a lot of stuff gets misreported and blown out of proportion.” But she appeared content with executives who had buttons to physically open and close doors — while she did not.
Now mind you, I wouldn’t mind having an office with the Mr. Spacely button that controlled who came and left my workspace. I get it. I would, however, be a bit concerned about why only certain people had one while others didn’t and what was going on behind their doors versus mine. Again, that is more of a hot button issue (literally) than a debate about celebrities as voters.
Of course no one can force one person to brush aside an issue as irrelevant or unimportant while another can view it as “uncomfortable.” But I do have a semantics concern with the phrasing “jump all over me.” In a time when #MeToo is making gains that were previously being ignored — if you ignore who is in the White House, yes, I said it — a responsible journalist should understand that calling a former interviewee out by name and painting a picture of feeling like she was being attacked in the middle of what seemed like an ongoing friendly banter is irresponsible. And that makes me, as a journalist, very uncomfortable.
While it would make more sense to have a private conversation between the journalist and the interviewee — as people and fellow voters, regardless of their work industry — after the interview is over, airing something that trivial out to the public just doesn’t seem productive. But if it works for her, I guess we won’t need an “overheard in the newsroom” for that one. She just let us hear her thoughts in public — more than a decade after one of the two parties moved on. But it leaves me wondering if she was really “kind of shaken” by an interviewee challenging her, or was the bigger issue the look of the “Hollywood folk” who did it?
* I can only count a handful of times that I’ve watched this show, but that particular interview ran across my Google searches and left a lasting impression.
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