Tova O'Brien destroys a fringe politician. Credit: YouTube

October 20, 2020   4 mins

It feels so good, watching New Zealand TV journalist Tova O’Brien demolish failed politician Jami-Lee Ross. The trouble is, you can’t trust anything that feels that good, because inevitably you end up wanting more than is wholesome: Negronis (make you sick), cigarettes (come on), attractive flirtatious people (make you stupid). And then there’s the particular kind of gratification that comes from seeing a dumbass made to look like a dumbass in public.

In a clip that’s been viewed more that 10 million times, O’Brien interviews Ross, whose Advance New Zealand Party failed to secure enough votes to win a single parliamentary seat in the recent general election — although “interview” isn’t quite the right word for what happens. Maybe what I mean is “humiliate”.

She starts by calling him a “loser”. He smiles gamely. Then O’Brien asks if he has any regrets; he rattles off a boilerplate answer praising the people he worked with, and she bowls straight back in. “Do you want to have another crack at answering that?” she says, “Because I just asked you if you have any regrets. You’ve just been part of a political movement which has been peddling misinformation during the election campaign. Do you have any regrets?”

Advance New Zealand are often referred to as an alt-right party, which doesn’t quite convey its full bizarreness as a political entity. For the 2020 election, Advance formed an alliance with the Public Party, which is a kind of grab-bag of the conspiracist and crankish. Imagine someone scraping all the maddest bits from the carcass of Facebook — a reclaimed slurry of 5G alarmism, anti-vax propaganda and scaremongering about electromagnets — and turning it into a manifesto. That, very roughly, is the Public Party.

One of the group’s candidates was a self-proclaimed psychic who withdrew from the race 24 hours after announcing her candidacy, presumably due to unforeseen circumstances. And that’s the most benign end of the lunacy that Ross bound himself to by allying the two parties, since the Public Party is also an avid promoter of covid conspiracies, something Advance New Zealand were happy to go along with. During the campaign, the New Zealand Advertising Standards authority upheld a complaint against Advance for spreading misinformation about coronavirus; Facebook shut down the party’s page for the same reason.

That’s why O’Brien went in hard on Ross with her questioning. When he tries to defend himself, she slaps him down, saying: “You know exactly what you were doing; you were whipping up fear and hysteria among vulnerable communities.” When he ventures something dubious-sounding about death rates, she talks clean over him: “No, no, no, I do not want to hear any of that rubbish.” At the end, after he’s manifestly failed to salvage any dignity from the encounter, she terminates the interview with a tart, “You’re dreaming, mate.”

New Zealand apparently already has a word for this: Ross had been Tova’d. But for most of the rest of the world this was new, delightful, glorious. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept called it “an absolute masterclass”. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen said it was “the way it should be done”. Such fun! Well here I am, the killjoy who says you don’t need a third Negroni and that the hot bartender encouraging you to order it probably doesn’t really fancy you anyway.

It is fun — but so what? O’Brien says herself that Ross’s career is over, and it’s highly unlikely that most of the people fawning over her interview style had ever heard of her victim before this moment. He was a nonentity when he walked onto her set: now he’s just a nonentity that everyone has heard of. Which I guess makes him… an entity, of sorts?

And if the interview didn’t, after all, take down a worthy foe, what did it achieve? O’Brien slammed Ross for misleading “vulnerable communities”, but it’s highly unlikely that anyone who believed his nonsense was going to be dissuaded from it by watching this encounter. Yes, there’s a simple principle of right and wrong, truth and falsehood here — but simplicity is exactly the problem with the way a lot of issues are handled by the media.

Carve any subject down to its barest conflicts, and you won’t help people find enlightenment and resolution. Instead, you’ll make them feel attacked, embattled, inflexible. In a recent piece Amanda Ripley warned of the dangers of journalism that goes in pursuit of simplicity; and which has, unfortunately, the effect of making everyone more committed to the certainties they’ve already chosen. Instead, she says, they should look for complexity, arguing that “Complexity counters this craving, restoring the cracks and inconsistencies that had been air-brushed out of the picture. It’s less comforting, yes. But it’s also more interesting — and true.”

Perhaps it doesn’t matter very much in the case of Ross. Advance got less than 1% of the vote, so you can hardly think of him as the representative of New Zealand’s Covid-denying left-behinds. More worrying is the idea that O’Brien is some kind of role model for journalists — “the way it should be done”. What she offers is the stupefaction of a cheap pleasure, which is fine once in a while, but nothing you can live on. Turn this approach on an actually popular populist, rather than a sadsack failure content to soak up the last moments of his dead career, and you’d quickly have a polarised nightmare.

Rather than attack people as liars or presume their bad faith, Ripley suggests journalists should look for ways to open conversations: instead of telling people what they think, ask them about why they believe the things they do. Often, the things that people seem to be at odds over are just proxies for underlying issues; and sometimes, those underlying issues are more tractable than you ever expected.

It’s even possible that the questioner could be the one to change their mind about something. A world where you might be the dumbass after all isn’t very reassuring, but it’s a lot more plausible than one where you’re only ever right.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.