Ask more questions

Sam Donaldson, who has spent most of his long career at ABC News covering politics, said he’s “apprehensive” about some of the campaign coverage on radio and television this year, suggesting that journalists haven’t been tough enough in questioning the candidates.

“It’s not our job to tear them down or fall in love with them,” he said. “It’s not our job to promote them. It’s our job to bring people facts about them and to question them.

“Don’t be rude–you know it’s my maxim,” Donaldson said, drawing laughter from the audience, who remember him shouting sometimes impertinent questions at U.S. presidents.

But ask the questions. Your job is not to win a popularity contest. Don’t go along to get along. Don’t give anyone a pass. Keep on them. On election day, go vote, but say to yourself I held their feet to the fire.

Donaldson said that journalists collectively should hang their heads for not pressing hard enough for answers before the invasion of Iraq. When it comes to covering candidates, he added, “Don’t be afraid to ask every question that you think is appropriate to find out what they believe in and what they have in store for us if they’re elected.”

Donaldson spoke at a ceremony at RTNDA in Las Vegas where he received the Paul White Award, given to recognize an individual’s lifetime contribution to electronic journalism. Past recipients include Christiane Amanpour, Charles Gibson, Charles Osgood and Ted Koppel. When he saw the list of previous winners, Donaldson said his reaction was “shock…and awe.”

A personal note: I’ve known Sam for more than 25 years. When I covered the White House in the Reagan years, Sam was already a dean of the press corps. When he yelled questions at Ronald Reagan, he did it not to be rude but to try to get answers. Reagan held very few press conferences and after the attempt on his life he was always surrounded by security who kept everyone back, including journalists. Days would go by without our actually seeing him in person, and then we’d only catch a glimpse as he walked from the Oval Office to his helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House.

Sam had the loudest voice in the press corps (although Bill Plante of CBS could hold his own), so he’d shout questions in the hope of getting a reply. Sometimes, Reagan would answer. But the tactic became less and less effective after the White House decided to keep the helicopter’s engines running while waiting for the Commander in Chief. If you’ve seen shots of Reagan walking along cupping his ear and shaking his head, that’s Sam’s voice he’s pretending to be unable to hear. But what he’s ignoring are questions the American people wanted answered.

ABC effectively took Sam off the air in 1999, after more than 30 years covering Capitol Hill, the White House, appearing on This Week with David Brinkely and co-hosting PrimeTime Live. His reward was to get the opportunity to launch the first regularly scheduled news program on the Internet in 1999–back when ABC thought “appointment viewing’ was going to be a winner online, says ABC News Washington bureau chief Robin Sproull. “Sam has never met a platform he didn’t like,” Sproull said. “If there’s a platform to deliver news, Sam wants to be on it.”

Sam now hosts a daily half-hour show, Politics Live, on the ABC News Now digital channel, which few people can see or bother to watch. But he goes at it with the same gusto he always brought to covering politics and he remains a mentor to young ABC staff.