This is Charlie Rose
Two figures, alone but for each other, sit around a large, sturdy oak table set up in front of an all-black backdrop. As the retro graphics and never-altering theme conclude, a distinguished Southern gentleman comes into view. Starting up in his familiar and warm North Carolina brogue, he introduces us (the viewer) to someone new, or invites an old friend back to his table. “This is Charlie Rose,” the announcer states, and so begins fifty minutes of wonderfully elucidating conversation.
Charlie Rose is perhaps the last of a certain kind of American twilight news-show presenter: a curious listener. Over the course of the past fifteen years, cable television has been transformed by the arrival of the politically-slanted opinion show, whereby Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow talk at you, as to tell you know exactly what they think on a particular issue. Guests in this format become a kind of prop, wheeled on and off stage in order to support their arguments. The only question asked of them is, “Do you agree?”
There is little attempt to educate or enlighten those watching at home, nor seemingly do the hosts try to learn a little something for themselves. Rather, they report and comment only on stories which fit neatly into their narrow worldviews. For left-leaning shows, that might be the influence of the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party movement on American politics and society. And, for conservatives, it might be some social wedge issue like abortion or gay marriage.
On Charlie Rose, he and the guest – a figure of such diverse worlds as those of politics, literature, film, theatre, education or architecture – set themselves down at his oft-mentioned table and have a conversation: an exchange of ideas where the host better attempts to understand the topic at hand in order for the viewer to do so in turn. Around the table, ideas are imparted, shared, exchanged and debated, on topics ranging from the War in Iraq, to the design of the new World Trade Center, and onto Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
His show is the antidote, then, to an ever more partisan, hermitic media, where viewers of a certain stripe are able to turn their dials to shows where they believe they will be told exactly what they want to hear. Views are reinforced, not challenged. In Charlie’s studio, without the pressure of questioned being prefaced with, “briefly if you could…”, guests are able to engage in a dialogue, and in the more relaxed atmosphere provide detail that would not come to light in the O’Reilly bullpen. Rose is, asserts Gillian Tett, “a master at charming his subjects into revealing interesting pieces of information”.
The existence of a loyal (if altogether small) and influential audience stems in no small part from an attachment to the man himself, and his often odd way of pitching questions to his latest companions. One of them might be called the DOA, or dead on arrival, where Charlie will utter a phrase, thought, or statement – blunt in style, not phrased in the manner of a traditional question. The interviewee is then left to interpret what the question would have been had it been phrased as such. So, when talking with Gore Vidal, Rose might say, “The great American novel”. After a pause, Vidal would then have to spin this, presumably into an answer on the state or decline of fiction in the United States.
Another of his favourite tacks is to first ask the question, and then provide a succession of possible answers, perhaps as to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject at hand. If Charlie were interviewing say Tom Friedman or David Brooks, he would ask, “What’s the biggest problem facing America in the twenty-first century? Is it unemployment? Is it the rise of China? Is it international terror?”. Whether it is Friedman or otherwise, the respondent is forced to state “all of the above, Charlie”, before going onto give the correct answer, lest they offend their host.
Then there are the days when Charlie hasn’t quite done the homework, and proceeds to finish it at the table with the guest present. Typically, if the guest is there to hawk their latest tome, Rose will often grope for the opening salvo by picking the book up, waving it about, saying that it’s received some first-rate reviews, and then proceeding to discuss either the significance of the title or perhaps the opening quotation. I seem to recall he even asked Gore Vidal once whether there was any hidden meaning to the type of dust jacket the publishers had selected for his memoir.
All these faults, or better yet quirks, are all factors which construct his charming and endearing persona, along with his never-dimmed optimism for his nation. Even as Congress grinds to a halt, as manufacturing jobs move across mountains and seas, as China grows in strength economically and militarily, Charlie continues to believe that America’s best days as ahead of her, and that as exceptional people in an exceptional land, Americans will turn their nation around even as they face their darkest hours. Only he would be optimistic or maybe foolish enough to ask America’s most famous crank, again Mr. Vidal, if he saw in a country he had not long ago labelled the United States of Amnesia, any redeeming features, or any signs of hope.