Why NBC News Went Way Too Easy on Rachel Dolezal

Regardless of all the star broadcasters NBC News threw at Rachel Dolezal for a series of on-air interviews Tuesday, it was a relative unknown that stood out.

Instead of Matt Lauer on “Today,” Savannah Guthrie on “NBC Nightly News” or MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, it was Amber Payne of NBCBLK — a small, NBC Universal-owned website devoted to black culture — who uttered the only question that seemed to yield some new information about Dolezal.

“How do you do your hair? Is it a perm or is it a weave?” asked Payne.

When Dolezal revealed that she does, in fact, have a weave, it was perhaps the most ridiculous moment to emerge from a string of interviews suffused with an almost surreal level of inanity. And yet the most absurd aspect of NBC News’ Dolezal Day was how straight-faced its interviewers sat as their subject grew loonier the more she spoke.

Perhaps the anchors’ timidity could be chalked up to wanting to avoid being too aggressive with someone who isn’t shy about bolting mid-interview. This was the same woman, after all, whose controversial saga began when she dashed off camera while being interviewed at a local news station, which challenged her regarding her parents’ race.

But what a difference a few days of preparation makes, considering how unflappable she seemed Thursday. Whatever you might think of Dolezal, she’s clearly a very bright woman capable of speaking her mind coherently enough to convince herself that her trans-racial evolution is a perfectly rational turn of events.

In language evocative of Caitlyn Jenner, Dolezal describes herself as “definitely not white” since she was a girl, when she described drawing her own image with a brown crayon. Dolezal is lucid enough to understand that the world does not see her the way she sees herself, yet is insistent that if everyone understood the “reality” or “truth” of her own experience, there wouldn’t be any confusion.

Lauer and Harris-Perry somehow didn’t ask a single question that really challenged Dolezal, who was given free rein to self-mythologize a story that even the most sympathetic observer would have to concede is just begging for some tough questions. Instead, it was as if the sheer peculiarity of an eloquent woman professing to be black despite being born white had knocked them so off-balance that they might have been better off just standing there slack-jawed.

Where the anchors really fell down was on keeping the focus on how many people Dolezal misled, regardless of how entitled she might feel she is to pursue her racial calling. Though they brought up the notion that she had acted inappropriately, as when Lauer point-blank asked her if she had been deceitful, when her answers betrayed zero sense of accountability for her actions, neither he nor Harris-Perry bothered to follow up.

Guthrie fares much better than her colleagues, challenging her subject repeatedly enough to yield the most memorable moment of the interview, where she has Dolezal openly questioning whether her biological parents actually are, in fact, her parents. “There are no medical witnesses to my birth,” said Dolezal, dispelling lingering doubts as to whether she is playing with a full deck.

It’s the kind of moment that demands the interviewer shift the tone of the interview and point out how nutty Dolezal is sounding, but Guthrie just keeps politely pressing her as if everything is normal. Rather than risk spooking their big “get,” Guthrie et al. fail to ask the cutting questions that could send Dolezal from ripping her microphone off, like whether she has ever sought psychiatric treatment.

NBC News will likely be just the first stop on a full-blown media tour for Dolezal; if social-media conversation is any indication, she will be a ratings draw. Given all the curiosity and how comfortable she seems on camera even spouting nonsense, you can’t help but fear she could even eventually get hired as a correspondent focusing on racial issues. Given what we saw from NBC News today, she can’t do much worse than the talent they already have in house.

See more video of Dolezal on Today; NBC Nightly News; NBCBLK; Melissa Harris-Perry.


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