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The US election could use a dose of Australian-style political interviewing

Desperate for ratings, the US cable channels don't challenge politicians' inflammatory remarks, encouraging more of the same.

Forget Tim Tams, some days watching election coverage in the US, the gift I would most like to be sent from Australia is Sarah Ferguson.

The ABC journalist could certainly teach many of her counterparts in America a thing or two about conducting a decent political interview – come armed with well-researched details, push them on issues of policy, particularly how they will affect the most vulnerable members of society, and, most importantly, don't accept an evasive answer.

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Her style would be a breath of fresh air compared to much of what passes for interviews in the US at the moment, like this interview of Donald Trump in January by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, a man not nearly so tough as his name might suggest.

"What do you have that Ted Cruz doesn't have?" and "Who do you see as your biggest threat?" were among the opening questions. Like so much campaign journalism in the US, the interview focused on the polls and the "sport" of elections instead of policy, and served simply as set-ups for well-rehearsed campaign lines.

Donald Trump has prospered as cable channels trip over themselves to get him to appear on their shows.
Donald Trump has prospered as cable channels trip over themselves to get him to appear on their shows. Photo: Tom Pennington

It's a minor step up from: "Your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?" – the line Lisa Simpson was fed by Mr Burns' campaign staff in the episode of The Simpsons where he ran for governor.

Trump, who began his campaign labelling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and has descended into a fury of anti-Muslim, anti-press freedom rhetoric since, is poised to win at least two of the major Republican primaries being held in the US on Tuesday, if polls are correct.

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Amid this seemingly unstoppable surge, and rising violence at his rallies, there is a growing sense of anger among his opponents – on the left but also within his own party – that the media is to blame.

And indeed it's not hard to see how the modern news media, particularly cable news, plays to Trump's strengths.

ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson.
ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson. 

From the get-go, in a crowded Republican field, Trump's celebrity, flamboyant persona and propensity to say outrageous, combative things have ensured him maximum coverage, from endless chat-show spots to hosting Saturday Night Live.

During one 30-day period last year, the news website FiveThirtyEight found Trump had commanded 46 per cent of the news coverage of the Republican race, far ahead of the next most dominant, Jeb Bush, who claimed just 13 per cent.

Donald Trump on the set of <i>Saturday Night Live</i> with cast member Cecily Strong.
Donald Trump on the set of Saturday Night Live with cast member Cecily Strong. Photo: Dana Edelson

You can watch CNN or any cable news network for five hours straight in this country (I don't recommend it) and virtually see no other story covered except presidential primaries, and overwhelmingly, what Trump did or said that day. I use the word "story" loosely – there are few if any researched, scripted pieces – but rather hours of talking heads, most of whom are campaign spokespeople, yelling at each other from different corners of a split screen, like a dystopian take on the opening sequence of The Brady Bunch.

This format thrives on conflict, soundbites and an endless supply of interviews, which Trump obliges – and why wouldn't he, when the interviews are often so friendly.

And I think they're kept friendly by this need to have him on. Unlike flagship shows on the ABC or BBC, which senior Australian or British politicians are expected to go on whether they like it or not, Trump could cut a network off at any time – a power he flaunted by ditching a Fox debate.

To be clear though, it would be naive in the extreme to believe few tough questions from any journalist would undo Trump at this point.

Trump has been subject to plenty of thoughtful, probing journalism, none of which has diminished his popularity.

If anything, critical stories, like attack ads from fellow Republicans, can add to his allure as an embattled maverick, bravely taking on the "Washington establishment" and "media elites".

The roots of Trump's rise are complex, and include economic conditions which have left a huge swath of voters feeling angry and disenfranchised, pervasive racism and the rise of the Tea Party.

But it's hard not to view cable news as providing a fertile ground from which Trump has grown and flourished.

Josephine Tovey is a Fairfax journalist in the US.

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