When politicians refuse to answer questions, report it.

June 14, 2006 | By | 9 Replies More

Why does it seem so easy for comedians to conduct satisfying interviews of politicians and so difficult for mainstream reporters?  For example, check out Jon Stewart’s interview of the RNC’s Ken Mehlman.   Stewart’s recent interview of Mehlman powerfully painted members of the current administration as a pack of lying conniving hypocritical thieves.  

To contrast, the mainstream media usually stumbles out of the gate.  Even when mainstream reporters ask clear questions, they receive heavily spun non-answers which they often treat as answers.  As we all know, these heavily spun non-answers reported by mainstream reporters are not valid perspectives regarding important issues. Such spin-doctored statements are actually filler–opportunities for politicians to claim that they answered questions that they didn’t answer at all. 

What Jon Stewart does on the above video clip is satisfying because he repeatedly indicates to the audience that Mehlman is failing to answer his straightforward questions.  Yes, Stewart does his work as only a good comedian can do, by rolling his eyes, smirking, joking and being sarcastic.  But his work as an interviewer is effective because the audience is constantly being reassured that the questioner (Stewart) is aware that the interviewee (Mehlman) is not really answering his questions.  Stewart’s questions, e.g., about the metric of success in Iraq or the identities of the oil executives with which Dick Cheney secretly met, deserve real answers. How strange that we get more dependable and important information from five minutes comedian interviews than from reams of newsprint and hours and hours of Meet the Press. 

I’m not just picking on Republicans.  Democrats are equally evasive (there are only a few exceptions, e.g., Russ Feingold and John Murtha).  What would 99% of democrats really do about Iraq?  We don’t know, because they won’t give real answers to those questions.  Would Democrats continue ANY domestic spying if they took control of the country?  We just don’t know.  They won’t answer the questions of mainstream reporters. They give the same sorts of psuedo-answers employed by the Republicans.

How can this be?  Reporters are not stupid.  Editors are not stupid.  Why are the interviews conducted by mainstream media so unsatisfying?

My suspicion is that mainstream news reporters find it impolite to label unanswered questions as such.  They shouldn’t be so polite.  When I ask my children whether they’ve cleaned their room and they answer that they are hungry, I remind them that they haven’t answered my question. If they continually evade my question, I clearly indicate that I am aware of this.  When mainstream reporters ask politicians clear questions, the reporters routinely accept non-informative responses to be “answers.”  I would suggest a new approach for the mainstream media, a Stewartesque approach.

From now on, when a politician fails to answer a clear question, the reporter should report that the politician failed to answer the question.  “When the Iraqis stand up , we’ll stand down” is not a real answer to a timetable for troop withdrawals.  It’s empty rhetoric.  If the front page is full of articles that particular politicians won’t answer clearly-stated questions (presenting a clear list of the questions) the readers would be up in arms.  They might demand change.  They might get involved.  They might demand real answers.   

On the above video clip, Jon Stewart repeatedly underscores Ken Mehlman’s failure to answer simple questions.  Mehlman’s failure to provide real answers is really the only information Stewart gets out of Mehlman through the entire interview:  Mehlman refuses to answer questions.  The interview is intertaining in other ways, of course. For instance, Stewart himself makes many POINTS through his cleverly worded questions.

Here is my fantasy version of a mainstream news interview.  Front pages all over the country should start reporting on all the politicians who fail to give clear answers to clear questions.  The articles will be short and sweet: Bush refuses to discuss 1) Iraq troop withdrawals, 2) Domestic Spying and 3) the effect of huge budget deficits.  The end.  And no more reporting of soundbites. To continue reporting evasive and mushy sound bites is to be an accomplice to a national bait and switch scheme.  People reading non-informative sound bites are being misled that bona fide answers are being provided. They are apt to consider themselves well-informed by the “news,” when they are not.

Why wouldn’t politicians provide real answers to clear questions?  This is a long-standing problem deserving a long discussion.  Here is my gut feeling: 

1) Becuase they are cowards: They want to be everything to everyone, so they strive to not take positions.  Further, if politicians speak boldly, someone might hold them to their promises.  If they later alter their answers, they might be accused of flip-flopping.  It is difficult work being a straight-talking politician.  It takes a lot of time and preparation to do the job honestly.  Perhaps if they weren’t going around soliciting money from powerful contributors every day, they could spend more time honing sensible answers to difficult questions.  They need to have faith that constituents can deal with straight talk.

2) DC politicians also spend a lot of time hobnobbing with members of the press corp.  This is a great thing for them.  They strike up friendships with each other and give each other access.  It is a horrible thing for the rest of us, because the reporters, fearing the loss of access to these politicians, are not likely to burn that access by repeatedly bluntly writing: “Senator Smith refused to answer my questions.”

3) Finally, it can’t be overemphasized that the newsmedia can only exist to the extent that it sells advertisements.  Why, then, would an media outlet willingly say good-bye to half of its audience by exposing the refusal of one party’s politicians to answer questions?  FOX, of course, has a “solution” to this problem–FOX has developed a niche audience, so it is free to aggressively attack politicians preferred by those who don’t watch FOX.   Jon Stewart’s audience also tends to have a niche audience. 

But for those media outlets that still attempt to maintain some sense of balance, the ghost of the advertising department sits prominently in the news department.  No matter what they say to the contrary.  If this weren’t the case, mainstream reporters would be firing away with clear questions and demanding clear answers.  And when they didn’t get real answers, they would report that fact, like Jon Stewart.


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Category: Media, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Sujay says:

    This is a valid question which I asked one of my professors last year. Why aren't journalists more aggressive with politicians? The answer I recieved is that a journalist is expected to keep a garb of 'objectivity' on. Not sure about America, but journalists who try to confront politicians here are often frowned upon by their colleagues. In aggresively questioning a politician, a journalist is apparently "taking sides", and this is something that a journalist is never expected to do. I'm not sure about this approach. While it is always good for a media outlet to be non-partisan, politicians really exploit the supposed detachment that a journalist is expected to have in his circles.

    And that apart, my professor explained, there are also 'practical considerations'. As you rightly pointed out, a journalist, and a media outlet need to be good terms with the politicians they are interviewing, if they ever hope to get future interviews from them.

  2. Sujay says:

    Sorry, I mistakenly pressed the "Submit" button prematurely on the last post, as I had not yet finished. A prominent newscaster in our country said "In the war between the journalists and the politicians, the politicians always win". I can see what he meant. One bad interview, and a politician would not be willing to be interviewed by that outlet for a long, long time. He might not outright refuse, but just make some excuse about not having the time, etc. It might have worked if the media outlets were united, and resolve to not let the politicians off the hook. Sadly, that's not the case today, as politicians have a 100 other outlets to choose from, if they stop giving interviews to one. The fact remains, if a media outlet is belligerent towards the politicians, the latter simply gang up with the former's rivals and ensure its slow death.

    And even if an outlet decides to grill its politicians and confront them, the fact is, politicians from one party will eventually be confronted more than the other, and the party in attack often uses to this excuse to brand the outlet the rival party's "mouthpiece". All confrontational outlets come to be known as leaning towards a party, even if they don't want to be known so, and this again, damages its reputation, since they are not known to be holding up to the ideal of 'objectivity'. As I said, the ideal objectivity while a good thing, can also be one of the journalists' biggest drawbacks.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a recent example of the President failing to answer a question and getting called on it (look toward the bottom of the article).

  4. Erika Price says:

    This would necessitate unobjective journalism. Of course, I don't think you can really call any journalism objective, but most news outlets still attempt to paint themselves as such. Unfortunately, any reporter who called a politician on empty rhetoric would face endless allegations of bias. Just one of the many reasons for openly biased journalism, in my opinion.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erika makes a very intriguing suggestion. Openly biased journalism, presumably covering a variety of biases, might actually achieve the goal of thorough journalism. Of course, some politicians would cower from unfavorable questions by only granting interviews with favorably-biased jourmalists — as Dick Cheney does with Fox "News" — but any politician who wanted to reach votors on the "other side" would need to buck up and take their punches. Indeed, such hot questioning might actually attract a lot of viewers, making participation not only more appealing for candidates, but also better for advertisers.

    In sum, I think Erika's suggestion is a good one. At the very least, I don't see how it would be any worse than the pablum we get from journalists now, and it seems like it has the potential to be much better.

  6. I once heard a politician state in an interview that if asked a question you are uncomfortable with to simply ignore it and answer the question you wished they had asked.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    David Gregory to Hillary Clinton: So you're choosing not to answer that question. let me ask you another issue —

    Hillary Clinton: No, I'm — no, wait a minute.

    Isn't it wonderful what happens when reporters refuse to pretend that non-answers are answers? This example happened on the Today Show.

    We need a lot more of this aggressive reporting, in my opinion.

  8. Sondra says:

    I remember when this first began – Dan Rather was interviewing then (I believe) vice-president Bush about Iran Contra – Bush did a side-step and Rather said "Mr. Vice-President, with all due respect, you haven't answered the question" or something similar. Bush again side-stepped. The next day, Rather apologized (and I knew it was all over) and then at some point there he was fired – am I remembering that part all right? But after that, news just changed and no one seems to remember that this happened or that it ever was any different – but it did used to be. It really did.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    What followed was a back and forth in which Ratigan attempted to get Williams to answer the following: Does he "accept racists and Nazis in the Tea Party?" The conversation reached its climax and conclusion when Ratigan declared "I don't want to continue with this, you're wasting valuable oxygen. Can we please cut off this man's microphone, he has no interest in answering my questions. Mark, a pleasure. Actually, not really a pleasure. It was offensive, you're offensive, your treatment of my show as a vehicle to spread your propaganda and ignore my question, offensive."


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