Sir David’s interviews with Richard Nixon remain a reference point for journalists
Public apologies don’t get much bigger than disgraced US President Richard Nixon’s in 1977, in which he, for the first time, acknowledged responsibility for Watergate. David Frost, the architect of that most famous of admissions, passed away Saturday night at 74. He was a towering broadcaster whose career spanned satire, political interviews and media ownership. The hours he spent with Nixon — chronicled in the 2008 Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon — made him a household name in the US and won him fame abroad.
Frost’s avuncular presence and chatty style offers a counterpoint to the hectoring scepticism and plain aggression favoured by modern interviewers, pioneered by Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys. Frost was criticised for being a softball interrogator, but his more relaxed demeanour often got results, his subjects caught off-guard by the sudden introduction of a more pointed line of questioning and the occasional zinger. So it was that one of the biggest “gotcha” moments in TV journalism was not so much a moment but an emotional, 20-minute ramble by a former president accepting he’d let his country down.
Frost said of his style in an interview to a British newspaper that “there’s a danger when you adopt an immediately hostile position without having the goods... You shut people up instead of opening them up. You can ask just as tough a question in a softly spoken way.” Interviewees caught on to this deceptively mild-mannered unmaker of reputations, but continued to be lulled into a sense of security. Reportedly, former Labour Party leader John Smith once told him he had a way of asking “beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences”. Frost’s reply? That he’d be happy to have it on his tombstone.