As Senator Marco Rubio was grilled by teens last night, scores of actual professional journalists asked themselves some variation of this question:
It is actually not a hard question to answer!
The first reason is access. Teens don’t have to worry about losing access to Marco Rubio. It took an extraordinary and tragic set of circumstances for these particular students to have the access in the first place, and they knew it would almost certainly be their only chance to directly confront him. For the students, their livelihoods do not depend on being able to gain access to Marco Rubio in the future. (The producers and bookers at CNN, though, do have to worry about this, and I am not alone in wondering how last night’s town hall will affect their ability to get Republican lawmakers to participate in similar events in the future, and how those events will be moderated.)
Cable news and Sunday show bookers worry, mostly correctly, that elected officials will stop appearing on their shows if the politicians are treated shabbily on those shows. It becomes self-reinforcing. Our politicians are, therefore, unused to being treated shabbily, and expect deferential and polite treatment. As a result, there’s no ongoing tradition of aggressive, adversarial questioning of major public figures in this country; we mostly substitute by performatively shouting at White House press secretaries, who are powerless, and exist only to absorb that shouting.
There’s not really a way to fix this, at least not in the short term. Even if we imported or cloned Jeremy Paxman, no elected official would do his show more than once. The Washington press corps can’t even manage to get the president to do press conferences anymore, and that (highly stage-managed and easily manipulated) format was already just about their only regular moment of unrestricted access to power.
Another reason the teens managed to make Marco Rubio squirm is that many teenagers are, bless them, not impressed by him and his title. Rubio is merely another old authority figure, in a position of power for what seem like mainly arbitrary reasons, like a vice principal or a mall cop. They do not have Respect For The Office. This is a useful lesson for journalists, perhaps! Members of Congress, in general, are not much more impressive than anyone else, and do not need to be afforded excessive deference because they have won an election and work in the fanciest building in the city. Most importantly, you needn’t assume they are serious, or sincere, or thoughtful, or Not Full Of Shit, merely because you have been conditioned to think elected officials deserve that assumption of good faith.
But perhaps the biggest reason why teenagers managed to ask tougher questions of Marco Rubio than professional journalists usually do is that the teens cared about the issue they were questioning him about. The most elite Washington journalists, like most elected officials, are insulated from the actual, real-world effects of most public policy decisions.
Issues are abstract to these journalists. They are mostly only asked about in terms of horse race politics—what is feasible to pass the House, what is popular, what will win over certain blocs of voters or alienate others—partly because most “objective” TV news types are not even as well-versed in policy as your average idiot blogger but also because caring about policy is coded as “advocacy” and not “objective journalism.” Gun violence is obviously very real and hugely important to kids who just saw their friends and peers get massacred by someone with a fully legal weapon of war. That informs how they questioned Rubio, and is why most nonpartisan political journalists couldn’t manage the same.
It is possible, obviously, to be nonpartisan and to take the real-world consequences of policy seriously, but doing so frequently leads to taking positions that look a bit too much like “partisanship” for our elite press to stomach, so it likely will not happen any time soon. The press cannot be like the teens. The teens care about making the world better, and do not care about Marco Rubio.