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Could You Repeat That, Please?

April 18, 2004

Mr. Answer Man, I have a question about the White House press corps. After waiting months to question President Bush at a full-dress press conference, why did these reporters get up one after another and ask the same question? I am referring to all the questions last Tuesday calling on President Bush to say that he has screwed up in Iraq.

Answer: You exaggerate. Yes, there was a mandatory quagmire question — I think we all look forward to that one every time. The “Don’t you want to apologize?” question was new — a modern classic, and thanks to Oprah and Richard Clarke for that. The other inquiries weren’t so similar. They were differently nuanced. We had two “Haven’t you failed as a communicator?” queries, two “Admit your mistakes” inquiries, and four or five “Didn’t you screw up?” questions, including three “Weren’t you responsible for 9/11?” questions. To me, this is just normal news gathering. I suppose you think it was pointlessly repetitive badgering.

Q: Oh, yes. Why don’t reporters ask different questions instead of rephrasing the same one over and over? I know the reporters couldn’t ask about the economy, because that’s going pretty well. But what about indications that India, Russia, and even France are getting nervous about what a terrorist win in Iraq would mean for worldwide jihad? Why not ask him about Kerry or whether he sees signs of life at the United Nations? Why the fixation with “You screwed up” questions?

A: One explanation, perhaps harsh, is that most questions at televised news conferences are actually the opinions of the reporters, lightly garnished, with a question mark placed at the end to imply objectivity. Thus “I think you screwed up” becomes the more palatable and totally professional, “Sir, didn’t you screw up?” There are many variations on the basic screw-up question. The “apology” query is surely a promising growth area here. I think we’re going to see a rich flourishing of apology questioning. The journalism schools are probably working on it right now.

Q: Let me ask something nuanced and slightly different: Why do these reporters ask the same badgering question over and over? Is it because they think a lot of viewers tuned in late and simply don’t know what the previous badgering question was?

A: Not at all. But you should look at another factor. Reporters who are selected to interrogate the president for five seconds on national TV do not take this responsibility lightly. And there’s more to it than just getting your hair done that morning. They have to think a lot about what to ask and how to frame it. Then they polish and rehearse it, perhaps in front of a mirror. So if it turns out that they are the fourth or fifth person in a row asking, “Mr. President, didn’t you screw up?” it’s too late to do anything about it. Should all these preparations go to waste, merely because their question has already been asked and answered? Of course not.

Q: Yes, but it’s like going to a six-person panel discussion and hearing all six panelists start off with the same joke. Couldn’t these reporters prepare an emergency backup question?

A: Say, that’s a pretty good idea. Rehearsing two questions instead of one!

Q: Let me add this. When two reporters ask the president three times if he feels responsible for 9/11, do they realize they are enraging people from coast to coast? Ron Brownstein reports in the Los Angeles Times that an unnamed Democratic lobby gathered a focus group and showed them a campaign ad accusing Bush of negligence for failing to stop the 9/11 attacks. Brownstein wrote that the focus group exploded with “volcanic” rage against the ad. He quoted a Democratic operative as saying, “They were so angry I thought they were going to turn the tables over.” Why do you think a notion that enrages normal Americans is considered worthy of throwing in the president’s face at a press conference? At least the reporters didn’t ask him if he and Osama hatched the 9/11 attack together. Wouldn’t you say they could be a bit out of touch?

A: Maybe so. You know, now that I think of it, this might just explain why they keep asking the same question over and over.

From → Media, Politics

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