Asking hard questions is hard, and sometimes gets ugly. That’s journalism (and, life)

A press gaggle. Trust me, we don’t like them either. (LIU.edu, click for more)

How would Greg Gianforte have voted on the health care bill?  I still, want to know, don’t you?

There’s only three answers.  For, against, or I’m still ready to answer.  There, see, that’s how you avoid assaulting someone.

Through the haze of yet another melodramatic event — in this case, a Congressional candidate assaulting a reporter in full view of other journalists — it’s essential not to lose focus on the serious issues on the table. In this case, the future of health care in America, which is a really complex issue. Yes, yes, First Amendment, I love it.  But it’s awfully self-serving for me to say that, right?  As (newspaper) journalists, we are taught right away that we are not the story – YOU are. So all these media vs. everyone incidents, I fear, are distracting us from important discussions. But one thing that has become really clear to me during the past year or two is that journalists have done a really bad job explaining to everyone else what our job is, how we do it, and why.  We see this on display today.

Fundamentally, Wednesday’s incident was all about trying to get a political candidate to answer a question he didn’t want to answer.  And on the eve of the election, he really, really didn’t want to answer it.

There was a particularly good reason to ask that question on that night: Earlier, Gianforte had demurred on the legislation, suggesting he needed more information. That “more information” arrived on Wednesday, in the form of the Congressional Budget Office scoring the House GOP health care bill. There was something new, so it was time to ask the “how would you vote?” question again.  Particularly because it’s very likely Gianforte, if he wins, will have a vote on a Senate-revised version of that bill.

Add to that, this: Last night was, almost certainly, the last chance that Montana voters had to hear from the Republican candidate what his position was on the legislation before election day.

It was a good question. Voters deserved an answer.  Gianforte was so loathe to answer that he allegedly put his hands on someone’s throat instead of answer.

A whole lot of journalism is the cat-and-mouse game between reporters asking good questions that politicians don’t want to answer.  But it’s not just reporters. Everyone has done this.  We’ve all tried to pin down an employee, a boss, a lover, a family member, or a co-worker when he or she doesn’t want to give an answer.  What do the subjects of these questions do? They obfuscate.  They dodge. They take back doors.  They are unavailable.  They cancel meetings. So what you do?  You stalk their office.  You surprise them when they can’t escape.  You re-form the question into a simple yes or no.

Sometimes, it gets heated.  If you are kept at a distance, allowed access only as part of a group , you might even yell.  If you know someone is dissembling, you might engage in what sounds like a “prosecution.”

You probably don’t just accept a non-answer. I hope not, anyway.

And so on Wednesday, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs surprised Gianforte, caught him off guard, using a tried-and-true technique to get a politician to answer a question. We’ll see what the investigation ultimately concludes.  But there’s nothing to suggest that Jacobs trespassed, or intimidated, or raised his voice, or even embarrassed Gianforte.

He was asking a perfectly reasonable question, and, as you can hear for yourself, did it in a very professional tone of voice.

We don’t know what baggage Gianforte brought to the situation. A generous interpretation could be that he had been *nearly* assaulted on prior occasions by reporters and he’d had it.  If he didn’t feel that way, it’s certainly easy to see that thousands of Americans do feel that way.

“If a lib reporter a day was body slammed – we might start seeing some honest, professional journalism,” one Tweeted at me today.

It happens more than you think.  Cameras get knocked out of hands, recording devices are seized, reporters are humiliated, every day in the public sphere. We all have our stories. It’s fine, it’s what we sign up for.  Believe me, if you have a better idea how to get the answers to difficult questions, I’m all ears. But right now, people who represent American citizens do an amazing job of playing hide and seek, so journalists have to take what they can get. When folks make excuses for those playing hide-and-seek, it makes the job harder, but forget that — it makes getting answers even less likely.

I know there are plenty of times when journalists (usually for television) grandstand, or exploit victims, or make speeches when they should just ask questions. I hate that too and I wish we’d stop.

But here’s the reality you may not see: News events are carefully orchestrated so powerful people like CEOs and politicians DON’T have to answer hard questions. Reports are kept in pens.  Access is granted only to “friendly” journalists (yes, all sides do this). If journalists sometimes look stupid for persisting or yelling, that’s by design.

So let me leave you with one question, and I hope you won’t dodge it.  Forget the body slam. Forget that both journalists and politicians are people, too, and both make mistakes.   As you interpret these escalating confrontations, consider this: Did anyone actually answer the question? If not, what would you do?

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About Bob Sullivan 1332 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. I’m pretty sure that conservatives don’t want a liberal politician to body-slam a Fox News reporter. There will come a time when conservatives won’t have control of all three branches of government and they’ll need the First Amendment to keep the liberals honest.

    As always, Bob, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this issue.

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