I’m in Texas.
I don’t live here but a week ago I packed up my teenage daughter and we fled California for some time on the road. Our gorgeous Golden state has become a depressing prison and I can no longer tolerate watching my child fall deeper into the listlessness that has come as a result of these insane, unjust shutdowns. We’ve been traveling around Texas, visiting friends and seeing new cities, seeing how other people live.
I love the open road, but the road to Texas from California is long. Very, very long. They say everything is bigger in Texas, but that’s not just a cliche. The entire state is humungous. This means we have a lot of driving time to kill. Usually I listen to an audiobook or catch up on my favorite podcasts, but even that can get boring with 20 hours of driving in front of you. As I searched for new podcasts to keep my attention I discovered that my favorite true crime show Dateline is available in podcast form.
I’ve been listening to hours and hours of American crime, tenacious detectives, distraught families…and inquisitive hosts.
As I listened to an episode in which host Andrea Canning conducted an interview with a convicted murderer – who continued to deny and lie and spin during the entire conversation – it suddenly occurred to me.
We need the Dateline hosts to conduct the rest of debate season. They’re the only ones who can do the job that needs to be done.
You see, it isn’t unusual for the Dateline hosts to come face to face with actual murderers. Most of them are guilty beyond a doubt, but all of them take the opportunity to plead their innocence and spin the proven truth. Much of the time their lies sound ridiculous. When they can’t commit to a lie they will pivot, twist, distract. They’ll blame the victim, the law, a shoddy investigation…anything but themselves. But the Dateline hosts never let an unanswered question slip by. They never let their subjects wriggle out of a tight spot. They never accept a lie or anything that feels like deception. I find Andrea Canning to be the best at this. She has a way of being friendly and professional, even kind, while still being firm. She never lets a guilty interviewee off the hook.
After Trump’s first debate with Biden, many Trump supporters complained that Chris Wallace was a biased moderator. They say he hounded Trump, sometimes not letting him finish his answers, while letting Biden get away with simplistic answers and even just refusing to answer at all. While I didn’t think Trump performed well at all, I have to agree that Wallace seemed more inclined to let Biden skate on far too many comments. Trump was left to ask the follow up questions all by himself. As obnoxious as he sounded, he was left with no choice.
Even so, thinking about what a terrible moderator Chris Wallace was made me wonder. Has there ever been a presidential debate moderator in the last few election cycles that Republican voters have liked? It seems quite rare to have a moderator both ends of the political spectrum can agree on.
But we can all agree that Dateline is the best true crime show on tv, and that the Dateline hosts are adept at following up on details and shady dodges from shady characters.
Who better to host a presidential debate? In fact, we should just let the Dateline team produce the entire debate show. They can divide it into segments, with each one building on the other until the final act when the smoking gun is found and the murderer…er…winner emerges. When the candidate deflects and pivots, our Dateline moderators can gently restate the question. When the candidate says something nonsensical, our Dateline moderators can use their finely tuned interviewing skills to demand clarification. Just like on the show, they won’t give away their personal bias. Josh Mankiewicz can look a murderer right in the eye and listen to him spout the most ridiculous nonsense without once giving away that he knows it’s ridiculous nonsense. Imagine how he’d handle Joe Biden refusing to answer whether or not he’d pack the courts.
Andrea Canning has a sincere and nurturing persona, but she is deceptively pointed. It brings me great joy to imagine Canning asking Kamala Harris if she supports the New Green Deal, and then asking again when Harris tries to pivot to Obamacare, and then asking again. No one could ever accuse Canning of being rude, partisan or ignorance. She’s a dogged reporter who knows how to deal with storytellers without forgetting her manners. She knows how to draw the truth out of people who really want to tell the world all about themselves but are trying hard to resist the urge.
And then we have Keith Morrison…Dateline OG. Morrison’s lilt and cadence are so famously unique that SNL’s Bill Hader once did an epic send-up of the prolific host. I’ve heard Morrison didn’t really care for it but as a huge fan of the man, I found it to be sort of a tribute. I’ve been in the news industry a long time now, but I’ve come across few reporters as curious and genuinely caring as Morrison. I once read that he has even maintained warm relationships with some of the families he’s covered over the years.
Morrison has a way of asking questions that seems to make his guilty subjects nervous about disappointing him. Sometimes I see them doing the math in their heads.
“He sounds caring, but he’s actually asking me to incriminate myself with the truth. But he’s so nice!”
I’d love to see Morrison get ahold of Trump, Harris and Biden in a debate.
Pence is unflappable so he’s no fun for this game.
Surely the Dateline have their own political biases. I’m quite certain most of them are Democrats like their network colleagues. However, I’ve been listening to them in action for hours and hours of road time, and I believe they are the professionals we need right now. If you can look a murderer in the face, knowing they’re guilty, and still calmly coax them into answering your questions (no matter how incriminating the utterances may end up being) then you can definitely look a presidential candidate in the face and do the same thing.
We look at Dateline as a kind of salacious reporting. We see it as “entertainment” but it really belongs in the same category as the daily news cycle of the 24-hour networks. These are reporters, and they are damn fine ones at that. The rest of our profession could take a few lessons from these hosts and their production teams.
Hand over the rest of the debate cycle to the Dateline. In 2020, this hardly seems like a crazy idea at all.