Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: I never want to see another town hall after CNN's with Paul Ryan

I love the role TV town halls can play in enlarging our democracy. But after 15 minutes of listening to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan shamelessly trying to spin away the failures of the Republican Congress and White House Monday on CNN, I never want to see one again.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m being personal here, but the over-riding mental image I have of the telecast is that of a snake slithering from one rock to another for an hour and six minutes. It wasn’t a pretty sight unless you love false earnestness, ego and rhetorical dexterity.

The headline that will probably come out of the session hosted by Jake Tapper is that Ryan said President Trump “messed up” on Charlottesville.

If you present that quote without context, it almost sounds like Ryan criticized Trump, something many Americans have been waiting for him to do since January.

But all Ryan said Monday night was that Trump “messed up” in his comments last Tuesday.

Those comments included Trump saying there was fault for the deadly violence in Charlottesville “on both sides,” and there were “fine people” among the Nazis and white supremacists who marched through the college campus brandishing torches and shouting anti-Semitic slogans.

You sure you want to go that far a week later, Paul, now that the condemnation of Trump’s remarks has been nearly universal? This is real profiles in courage stuff, Mr. Speaker.

But that statement is even more pitiful in the context of Ryan also saying in the town hall that he liked what Trump said on the day before those inflammatory remarks and what the president said Monday night before the town hall in an address to the nation. In that address on a shift in our policy on Afghanistan, the president talked early on about the need for America to be a nation without discrimination or hate.

Ryan’s rhetoric in talking about Trump and Charlottesville is representative of his posturing and hypocrisy throughout the town hall. He went into high-earnest mode to stress the need for “moral clarity” in the face of hate Monday night, yet he was anything but clear in not criticizing Trump’s shameful remarks last week.

He also repeated how we all have to “do more” to “stand up against the repugnant bigotry.”

Personally, I think he certainly needed to do more. But who is he to say the counter-protesters who put their bodies on the line in Charlottesville, for example, have to do more?

One person was killed and several were injured. But saying “we all have to do more” sounds forceful and righteous while actually taking some of the blame off people like him who didn’t do enough.

Don’t blame Tapper for the evening. He is as good as we have any right to expect a TV journalist to be, and I had the sense that Ryan’s spin was having the same effect on him that it was on me.

After a blur of questionable claims from the speaker about all the accomplishments in the House of Representatives in recent months, Tapper said, “I have follow-ups, but this is a town hall, not an interview.”

Tapper is right: There is a difference between a town hall and an interview, and it would not have been right for Tapper to usurp the audience in its right to question Ryan.

And don’t blame the CNN producers. The audience questions were generally good and tough.

A Dominican nun, Sister Erica Jordan, asked Ryan, Catholic to Catholic, how he reconciles his actions in Congress with what she described as a fundamental demand placed on Catholics to help the “poor and dispossessed.”

“Spoken like a great Dominican nun,” he said patronizingly after she asked her question.

After the applause, he then told her he totally agrees with her on that demand of the faith and that he feels he is meeting it, though his methods might differ.

This from the guy who led an effort to pass a health bill in that House that even Trump called “mean,” in part, because of the millions of poor people it would cut from Medicare.

At moments like that I wished it was an interview and not a town hall and that someone like Tapper could ask a barrage of hard, focused questions of the guy slithering from rhetorical rock to rock.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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