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October 11, 2004

why the questions were good in Friday's debate

Commentators are saying that the Missouri citizens who asked the questions last Friday did a good job. They tend to note this with a tone of pleased surprise or patriotic piety. ("You see, ordinary American folks can do almost as well as professional reporters when the stakes are high.") My take is different. I think ordinary people will almost always ask better questions than professional journalists, not because Americans are particularly thoughtful and well-informed, but because reporters have been trained to avoid the most obvious--yet vital--questions.

It's extremely useful to ask candidates what they would do about a given problem in the future. This type of question is hard but obviously fair. It elicits information about knowledge and competence, values and priorities, and policy choices--in short, the "merits and measures" of public figures (to quote James Madison about what the press should report).

I count eight questions asked last Friday that were essentially about future policies. (Several more touched on the future while also mentioning character or past decisions.) In contrast, when President Bush gave an extremely rare White House press conference last April, the professional reporters who confronted him asked virtually nothing about current or future policies. Instead, they asked questions about the President's personality that cemented their reputation as the hostile "liberal media" without actually giving Bush any difficulty at all. If you are asked, in effect, "Why are you so stupid?" then you don't have to show any knowledge or address any difficult problems. You can just say something polite but forceful, and the reporter will look rude and biased.

It doesn't occur to ordinary people to ask that kind of question. And the reason is fairly simple. They are trying to make up their minds about whom they should choose in November. Thus they need to know about candidates' "merits and measures"--period. In contrast, journalists are trying to tell a story about the electoral conflict, the horse-race. For them, the interesting questions are: Who's down and who's up? How will candidate A reply to the charge made by candidate B? What tactic will A use? How does he intend to campaign from now on? What does he say about B?

A question or two of this type would be OK, but reporters' relentless attention to the horse-race cheapens politics, lets incumbents off the hook, and makes professional journalists distinctly worse than other people at conducting political interviews.

Selected questions from the debate:

Senator Kerry, the U.S. is preparing a new Iraq government and will proceed to withdraw U.S. troops. Would you proceed with the same plans as President Bush?

My mother and sister traveled abroad this summer. And when they got back they talked to us about how shocked they were at the intensity of aggravation that other countries had with how we handled the Iraq situation. ... What is your plan to repair relations with other countries given the current situation?

Iran sponsors terrorism and has missiles capable of hitting Israel and southern Europe. Iran will have nuclear weapons in two to three years time. In the event that U.N. sanctions don't stop this threat what will you do as president? In the event that U.N. sanctions don't stop this threat, what will you do as president?

Mr. President, since we continue to police the world, how do you intend to maintain a military presence without reinstituting a draft?

Senator Kerry, we have been fortunate that there have been no further terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. Why do you think this is? And if elected, what will you do to assure our safety?

Senator Kerry, would you be willing to look directly into the camera and using simple and unequivocal language give the American people your solemn pledge not to sign any legislation that will increase the tax burden on families earning less than $200,000 a year during your first term?

Senator Kerry, thousands of people have already been cured or treated by the use of adult stem cells or umbilical-cord stem cells. However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn't it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?

Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who do you choose and why?

October 11, 2004 12:01 PM | category: none

Comments

I think that some of the surprise wasn't that people wouldn't have good questions to ask the candidates. The worry (that I had and that I heard articulated elsewhere) was that since there was so mediation as to who could attend the debate (no firmly decided voters on either side), and how questions would be chosen by the moderator and asked. The audience was great.

That said, I was disturbed by the audience make-up. I can understand why it looked like it did (again, looking for relatively neutral voters), but it bugged the heck out of me that a debate held in an urban area with a large minority population would yield such a homogenous-looking audience set. But I'm just cranky this election season ...

October 30, 2004 6:15 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Eli

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