It's worth taking a couple of minutes to unpack what happens at the 13:30 mark in Pat Callaghan's recent interview with Sen. Collins.
After a lobbing a few simple, open-ended questions at the junior senator (i.e. softballs) a discussion of port security ensues. Then we get the following:
Callaghan: What about preparations and protection from cyber attack on this country--I mean this is the kind of thing that, when you think about it, could take down your electrical grid, it could shut down water supplies. There's all sorts of problems that the right computer hacker could really wreak on this country.The question--really a statement and an invitation for a response--seems unremarkable as long as you know nothing about the context.
But given that Collins recently reintroduced extremely controversial cybersecurity legislation, panned by prominent commentators and institutions across the political spectrum (even after a spin campaign was launched to muddy the issues) Callaghan's way into the topic is just plain weird. And telling.
He doesn't inform viewers about the controversy or the substance of the critiques of the proposed bill. Instead, he simply tees the topic up for Collins. And he lards up his formulation with questionable, Collins-friendly premises. (Is it really true that hackers can take down "your electrical grid"? Does Callaghan know this for a fact?)
Don't get me wrong: I'm used to Maine reporters treating Sen. Collins more like a visiting dignitary than an accountable pol, and internalizing the idea that she should be handled with kid gloves.
But here Callaghan is taking that cowed, sycophantic posture a step further, playing something closer to the role of infomercial sidekick than classic journalist: Collins has a product to sell (cybersecurity legislation and, more generally, the notion that she's a "serious" legislator) and he clearly does his best to frame the issue in a way that will make her shine.
This is journalism?
I e-mailed Callaghan to ask how he came to choose the cybersecurity question and how he decided to frame it the way he did. Here's his response:
The topic was not suggested by the senator or anyone on her staff. And I don't tell anyone specifically what questions I will ask in advance.I take Callaghan at his word. And maybe he didn't know about the controversy swirling around the legislation.
I did tell her communications director Kevin Kelley that I would be asking questions about the budget, homeland security and whatever else came up.
The internet security question was just something that seemed worth discussing, especially in light of the fact that it is a homeland security matter, something with which Sen. Collins is very involved.
The "In The Arena" segment is an opportunity for the guest to talk about a subject at greater length than the typical news story allows. So, I brought the question up in a general way and let her have her say.
I don't think the context was obscured. Viewers can judge for themselves whether they think her proposal is a good idea or not.
But either way, there's simply no place in legitimate political journalism for the cozy, collaborative approach that Callaghan adopts here.