After that exchange, Santorum twice asks Inskeep: "Is that a shock to you?" And Inskeep asks him — without eliciting an answer — whether Santorum has only recently come to that conclusion about partitioning Iraq.
Later, the two quibble over whether Santorum has said that sectarian violence in Iraq is on the rise and that the U. S. needs to revise its strategy based on the escalation.
As Inskeep and I replayed the interview in the quietude of my office, I listened very carefully for signs of sarcasm or intimations of skepticism. What I heard was Inskeep working hard to keep Santorum focused on the central issues of the discussion — his position on Iraq relative to the Bush administration at a critical juncture in the campaign and whether political expediency was a factor in Santorum's views on the war.
Inskeep said he appreciated Santorum's aggressive interviewing style. "He's combative but not evasive," Inskeep said. "He engages your questions head-on. I appreciate that."
The Santorum staff, on the other hand, felt more like the NPR listener from Iowa. Santorum's press secretary, Virginia Davis, wrote in an e-mail that she had consulted with the Senator's staff and "the overwhelming feeling was that we were disappointed with the clear bias of the host."
But Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the Democrat from Illinois, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, offered another perspective. Inskeep interviewed him on Oct. 17, and their talk was another target of listeners' complaints. Sara Feinberg, the Committee spokeswoman, said Emanuel "felt very good about the interview. He appreciates Steve's interviewing tactics. He's a tough interviewer."
How an NPR Host Rates His Interview
As I assess the Santorum interview, Inskeep did his best to keep the Senator focused on the questions. At several junctures, Inskeep tried to rephrase Santorum's answers to make sure that he understood and that he could communicate that to Morning Edition's listeners.
The art of conducting a broadcast interview in contrast to an interview for a newspaper is as different as acting on Broadway – where every miscue is obvious to the audience — versus acting in a movie, where each scene can be reshot to perfection. In the time allotted to a radio interview, the interaction between host and interviewee is on display for the listeners.
A newspaper reader, on the other hand, rarely gets a candid glimpse of a print reporter's tone and style. Thus, an emotionally charged interview – confined to the printed page — may lose its electricity without the voices of the participants.
At NPR, where civilized discourse is one of the network's cherished goals, it's not always possible to strike a perfect balance between the often competing goals of civility and the pursuit of responsive answers to pertinent questions.
After hearing the Santorum interview, I asked Inskeep how he would rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 signifying an easygoing, uncontroversial interview, and 10 representing the most tense, pugnacious exchange. He wavered — at first, rating it a 4 and, then, after further discussion, elevating it to somewhere between a 5 and 6.
From my review of the tape and the transcript, I detected no sarcasm or bias — only a single-minded effort to elicit answers to important questions about the conduct of the war in Iraq and Santorum's recommended course of action to deal with the changing conditions on the ground. Perhaps some listeners may have interpreted one of Inskeep's trademark "hmms" or his seeming surprise at Santorum's thoughts on partition as signs of skepticism.
Inskeep argues — and I agree with him — that the core purpose of an interview is to get answers to important questions.
Especially at this time of year, it's the media's role to ask the questions that elicit answers that will enable voters to make informed decisions at the polls. That may mean a reporter or a host like Inskeep has to persist in a line of questioning even when it makes a candidate uncomfortable.
What some listeners may hear as incivility or rudeness may simply be the product of a broadcast journalist making a tenacious effort to steer an experienced politician toward providing responsive answers instead of reading from a scripted playbook of party messages. That quest for depth may result in some tempestuous, argumentative discussions, but that — in my opinion — is what fuels a democratic government.