No More Whistlin’ Dixie

Diane Sawyer’s indecorous performance with the Dixie Chicks.

The Chicks try to come off as “spirited but polite” in the Sawyer interview

Last night’s Primetime Thursday, which featured Diane Sawyer interviewing the Dixie Chicks about their recent woes, was one of those broadcast moments that make you want to put your foot through the television. In case you’ve been out working in the garden this past month, the occasion for the show was a relatively innocuous remark the Chicks’ lead singer, Natalie Maines, made at a concert in London just before the war. “Just so you know,” she said from the stage, “we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The Associated Press picked up the line; country music stations fanned the flames; and within a few weeks the Dixie Chicks’ newest record, Home, which had been No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, was being boycotted across the country.

This is silly but not unpredictable. What followed was disgusting: CD-crushing radio promo events, vandalism of Chick Emily Robison’s home, threats on the Chicks’ lives, and a campaign of hatred directed at three of the most talented women in the music industry. Bruce Springsteen occasionally gets flack for his political remarks, but he doesn’t get called a slut.

The Chicks themselves may have inadvertently made things worse. When Jonathan Franzen ticked off the Oprah folks, it was as distressing to see his furious backpedaling as it was to see the arrant frenzy that his remarks occasioned. It would have been easier on him—and probably shortened the story’s news life—if he’d just insisted, “Yeah, I said it. Yeah, I meant it. If you want to talk about it, we can do that. If you want to scream at me, I’m going to have to tune you out and get on with my life.” God knows Maines and her two bandmates might have saved themselves a little heartache if they’d done the same.

Still, they have the burden to bear of being from Dallas, where women tend to be a) spirited and b) polite. Not always an easy balance to maintain, but last night Maines did her best. When Sawyer prompted the three of them to ask for forgiveness, in a gruesome moment of utterly fake primetime piety, the trio paused. You could see them struggling with their pride, their conviction, and their desire to get along; I was half-hoping they’d suggest Sawyer kiss their three asses (and I’d be surprised if the notion didn’t run through their minds). Instead, Maines kept her cool and her dignity. “Accept us,” she said. “Accept an apology that was made … but to forgive us, don’t forgive us for who we are.” And she went on to point out, as if it needed to be said, that the practice of dissent is fundamental to democracy.

That wasn’t good enough for Sawyer. She spent an hour trying to bend the Chicks with a combination of false sympathy and crass sensationalism. Time and again, she cut back to a typeset insert of Maines’ original remark, as if Maines had called for the pillage of Crawford. “Ashamed?” Sawyer said, incredulously. “Ashamed?” In the tradition of a Stalinist show trial, the women were forced to affirm their patriotism and their support for the troops. At every point they—who are, after all, entertainers with no particular training in political science—were thoughtful, modest, and firm. At every point Sawyer tried to force them into a crude, Manichaen choices. “Do you feel awful about using that word about the president of the United States?” she asked at the start of the interview—in a prime example of the sort of leading question no self-respecting first year AP stringer would ask. “Well,” replied Maines, carefully, ” ‘awful’ is a really strong word.” Later, when Maines was trying to apologize and clarify, Sawyer said, “I hear something not quite, what, wholehearted. …”

Well, I heard something not quite—what—honorable in Sawyer’s presentation of the affair: an attempt to take a trivial matter that had blown up into an absurd controversy, and blow it up even more under the guise of simply covering the story. Essentially, she asked the women to choose between abasing themselves on national television or stirring up more hatred against themselves. It was a depressing moment in an ugly time.

For what it’s worth, I have profoundly mixed feelings about the war, and if I were to sit down with Natalie Maines, I’m sure we’d have much to disagree about. But, just so you know, I’m proud that the Dixie Chicks are from Texas. What’s more, I’m embarrassed that Diane Sawyer is a member of my profession.