November 12th, 2008

Asking the Right Questions

photo credit: Oberazzi

In the public’s mind, what is the purpose of journalism? My understanding leads me to believe that the industry exists to investigate issues that others—who are preoccupied with their own engaging pursuits—cannot. An industry has thus been created around investigative reporting, with individuals specializing in sifting through the constant turmoil of the world to find and report on news that is relevant to their audience.

Journalism (and public knowledge as a whole), however, only succeeds to the extent that it asks the right questions. One need only look at Fox News—champions of the neoconservative establishment—to witness the erosion of public trust and credibility that occurs when individuals fail in their duty. But while other reporters and journalists have skated by with some semblance of journalistic integrity, the public is waking up to the disappointing truth that the vast majority of journalists do not ask the right questions.

What do I mean by this? Picture, if you will, a reporter interviewing a legislator on the subject of overbooked prisons. This legislator has proposed a bill that mandates tax increases over the next five years to fund the construction and operation of two new prison facilities, thus increasing the state’s total prisoner capacity by 250%. If you were conducting the interview, which questions would you ask?

Here’s a list of questions a journalist on any leading news channel might ask the legislator:

  • Most polls show that the majority of residents do not favor a tax increase. How do you plan on finding support to pass this bill?
  • Where would the new prison facilities be built, if this bill passes?
  • New prisons require new staff and guards—how many new jobs will this bill create?
  • When would this bill go into effect, and how long would it take for its full implementation?
  • How many co-sponsors do you have on this bill? Are you hopeful it will pass?

Contrast the preceding questions with others that might be asked:

  • Given the alleged need to expand prison facilities, can you explain why there is an increase in crime, if any, leading to higher numbers of individuals sentenced to prison?
  • Instead of building new prisons, what might be done to decrease the number of individuals being sent to prison?
  • With one out of every 32 people in this country in prison, do you think that spending our time and money expanding prison facilities is the best use of our resources in deterring crime?
  • Is it proper for people who commit small crimes to be sent to prison?
  • Would you favor seeing prison sentences reduced in length to have more turnover, and thus a decreased need for expanded prison facilities?
  • Your bill suggests a tax increase over five years; after that time, can you guarantee that the tax rate will return to where it stands today?

The differences between these questions may or may not be apparent, but they are important. The first set of questions deals only with superficialities, whereas the second deal with the underlying issue and attendant consequences. In the first, the reporter fails to challenge the legislator in any way, instead turning the interview into a simple media appearance benefiting the legislator, rather than the tax-paying viewers. In the second, the reporter uses the opportunity to raise alternative viewpoints and make sure the legislator has thought them through and has appropriate responses for each.

If journalists (and individuals seeking to understand things as they really are) do not ask questions that address the underlying issues, then we are doomed to the same fate as the Titanic—ignoring the looming iceberg whose massive volume lies just beneath the surface, outside of plain and immediate view. This selective questioning (in effect throwing softballs to almost all interviewees) occurs every day: we hear talk of monetary policy and the economy, but nobody discusses the nature and purpose of the Federal Reserve, a key component in the discussion; we read reports of troop surges, new deployments, and funding, but no explanation of what constitutes a sound foreign policy or how the Just War Theory plays into the picture; we view passionate speeches on health care reform without discussing where the federal government was granted the authority to do a single thing about it.

Hugh Nibley, always one to get to the heart of the matter, once wrote about the effect of not asking the right questions:

Satan’s masterpiece of counterfeiting is the doctrine that there are only two choices, and he will show us what they are. It is true that there are only two ways, but by pointing us the way he wants us to take and then showing us a fork in that road, he convinces us that we are making the vital choice, when actually we are choosing between branches in his road. Which one we take makes little difference to him, for both lead to destruction. This is the polarization we find in our world today. Thus we have the choice between Shiz and Coriantumr — which all Jaredites were obliged to make. We have the choice between the wicked Lamanites (and they were that) and the equally wicked (Mormon says “more wicked”) Nephites. Or between the fleshpots of Egypt and the stews of Babylon, or between the land pirates and the sea pirates of World War I, of between white supremacy and black supremacy, or between Vietnam and Cambodia, or between Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers, or between China and Russia, or between Catholic and Protestant, or between fundamentalist and atheist, or between right and left — all of which are true rivals, who hate each other. A very clever move by Satan! — a subtlety that escapes most us most of the time. (Hugh Nibley, via Quoty)

So, while we often watch debates between two different individuals, or hear contrasting viewpoints presented on a given issue, what is not readily apparent is the simple fact that a third option is almost always left out of the discussion. C. S. Lewis noted this as well:

I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them. (C. S. Lewis, via Quoty)

If we as individuals do not ask the right questions, we will simply allow ourselves to be led down a path chosen for us by people bent on pursuing their own agenda, shaped by ulterior motives. The refusal of journalists to ask hard questions, and the tolerance of the public at large to accept their softballs as valid investigation, must be repudiated if we are to hold people accountable for their actions and pursue the right course.

17 Responses to “Asking the Right Questions”

  1. Casual Observer
    November 12, 2008 at 10:05 pm #

    Butler Shaffer is fond of this quote by Thomas Pynchon: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

  2. Kelly W.
    November 12, 2008 at 10:59 pm #

    In an email conversation I once had with the then assistant editorial page editor (now promoted to be the chief editor) of my local newspaper, he confided in me by saying that journalism is no longer about reporting facts. It is about gatekeeping and writing what our perceived audience wants to read, otherwise we lose advertizing money.

  3. Reach Upward
    November 13, 2008 at 8:31 am #

    I think it’s rather odd what modern ‘journalism’ has become. It is part entertainment and part advocacy. But rarely does it live up to its stated purpose of providing valuable information without an ulterior agenda. Is it any wonder that people don’t trust journalists.

    Journalists constantly throw the dismal approval ratings of president and congress in our faces, but they rarely acknowledge that their own approval ratings lurk in the same regions.

    But journalists do a great job of one thing: getting us to focus intently on the road forks on Satan’s road map.

  4. David
    November 13, 2008 at 8:47 am #

    I notice that the first set of questions is all about the game of politics – the structural “how will you push this bill through” with the underlying assumption that it is all about the bill and all about doing something as an elected official. The questions do not deal with the causes of the problem, and neither does the bill.

  5. Clumpy
    November 13, 2008 at 9:21 am #

    Connor, I agree with the sentiments of all of your proposed questions, but I feel that about half of them are too charged for actual journalists to ask. They’d be fantastic questions for commentators, but when a story is about a particular prison it seems more appropriate for newscasters to talk about public sentiment in the area than to ask leading questions about the prison system in general.

    But maybe I’m wrong, and just so accustomed to the current state of apathetic journalism that I feel that way :). Certainly news networks are more interested in being trendy or partisan than looking at the underlying realities of our country and its systems.

  6. Connor
    November 13, 2008 at 9:27 am #

    Connor, I agree with the sentiments of all of your proposed questions, but I feel that about half of them are too charged for actual journalists to ask.

    I’m curious what you thought of this reporter’s questions for Joe Biden? Personally, I thought they were fantastic. But the contrast between such questions and the ones interviewees are accustomed to being asked in our day was evidenced by the backlash from Biden’s group afterwards (he was quite upset) and the widespread popularity of this news segment in the blogosphere (we were all surprised that such questions were asked in the mainstream news).

    Thoughts? Were these questions charged and leading, or an opportunity to get after some meaty issues and ask something many of us were thinking?

  7. Brennan
    November 13, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    This is why I don’t watch those talking heads on NBC, FOX, CNN etc… I watch The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.

    Funny thing is they report the news better then the “journalist”

  8. Doug Bayless
    November 13, 2008 at 10:38 am #

    Great thoughts and quotes Connor. Thanks!

    I think this is why “right-wing hate radio” has become so popular in the last ten years. Perhaps it has always been the case that ‘big media’ is under intense pressure from ‘the powers that be’ (advertisers, etc.) but guys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Glen Beck (etc. etc.) look for one or two “under-investigated news items” [that — fairly or not — push their predetermined worldviews and portray their constituencies and backers in a positive light] and proceed to delve into that issue with “politically incorrect” depth.

    There is a famine of depth and perspective in most ‘big media’ and these talk-radio hosts step in to try to fill that need with their own artificial [but sorta kinda different] tripe.

    I really appreciate blogs (like this one lol) where in addition to a philosophy of ‘in-depth is good’ there is so much interaction with people posting links and different viewpoints. Tougher to assimilate into the Corporatocracy I think . . . in all fairness, some ‘big media’ have comments sections like this that can enrich their online reports which I think is an improvement upon our past.

  9. Ty
    November 13, 2008 at 11:16 am #

    I was amazed at the backlash from the Obama/Biden camp at the Florida reporter’s questions. I found them to be plenty fair, they just weren’t the usual soft balls they’ve come to expect. It was also reminiscent of Bush’s tactics of shutting off the media for the last several years. So much for change in that regard…

    The problem with asking questions with any substance is that politicians are masters at answering the question they want to answer, not the one they were asked. I believe that’s why so many folks don’t care for Sarah Palin–she hasn’t mastered that skill. I’m not suggesting she’s inferior or that she should master the skill, but she comes across as less intelligent or clumsy because she lacks what we’ve all come to accept in our politicians. They’re no smarter than she is, they’re just better at disquising it.

    This is also why Bill O’Reilly is often villified by the liberal left–he won’t accept a politician’s refusal to answer a question. He’s public enemy number one to the mainstream media and yet he’s more fair and unbiased than most. He’s equally as hard on Bush as he is on the left.

    All I can do is shake my head at reporters like Chris Matthews saying it’s now his job to do everything he can to see that Obama’s presidency is successful–how is that the job of the media?

  10. Connor
    November 13, 2008 at 11:19 am #

    The problem with asking questions with any substance is that politicians are masters at answering the question they want to answer, not the one they were asked.

    I can think of no better example than this one of John Kerry.

  11. Cameron
    November 13, 2008 at 2:02 pm #

    Are you monitoring my computer screen Connor? Just this week I read Michael Crichton’s speech given in the early 90’s about the death of traditional media. He too criticized the types of questions asked, among other things.

  12. Adrien
    November 13, 2008 at 3:33 pm #

    Things may have changed since I decided to get rid of my television in December 2005, but the last I recall, most journalism on the television today is more about attracting and building a sensation as opposed to actually informing anyone of anything. With information at our fingertips, we don’t need to news to tell us anything new. Anyone who reads the news online will find that the traditional broadcast is a repeat of what we already know. So to maintain their viewer base, the networks have geared their programming towards entertainment and agreement.

    People who watch Fox News either watch it to agree with it or to disagree with it. Nobody is watching Fox News to learn something new. The function of learning is reserved for the History and Discovery channels. Well, it was until those channels started showing censored movies, UFO files, crime-solving and home decorating shows instead.

    To be honest, who needs television journalism when you have Bloomberg, WSJ, and Connor’s Connundrums?

  13. Clumpy
    November 13, 2008 at 9:23 pm #

    Loved the Kerry clip. What a political cliche.

    Actually, I think that the questions levied at Biden were all leading, rhetorical questions. There were honest ways to ask all of those questions.

    How about “Critics of your campaign have compared Obama’s tax and health care promises with similar socialist foundations. How can you separate the two?”

    (Here Biden might be forced to answer that the wealthy, with their many investments and assets, benefit more from public goods than the poor with no investments, and they will pay in turn for the extra services provided them. This is true and perhaps the only consistent answer that could be given, but I don’t think Biden, or anybody else for that matter, has considered the question on those terms. Plus it assumes that all wealthy people are resourceful entrepreneurs.)

    The ACORN question was ridiculous, though – ACORN has nearly the same error rate as any other registration organization, since they all rely on records submitted by individuals (actually they have a much higher self-reported flag rate for investigation). The only reason we’re hearing about them is because Obama has associations with them. Biden should have answered that ACORN’s mistakes were their own and that they’re doing their best to eliminate error.

    I think that these questions were misleading, because they act like the socialism debate is new. Most of Obama’s policies are retreads of canceled Clinton plans, and Bush and Reagan both propped up corporations while building up a mammoth paid military force. I sympathize with Constitutionalism, but building things that go boom to kill brown people is worse even than income distribution. Not putting these questions into historical perspective is misleading and makes it look like the campaign was “socialism vs. capitalism”, when in reality it was merely one species of socialism and encroaching totalitarianism against another.

  14. Marc
    November 14, 2008 at 5:19 pm #

    Has anyone noticed how the media during the coverage of the bailout scam constantly blames the private banks and insurance companies and thier CEO’s for the housing and credit crisis? Never do they mention who is really to blame for the whole mess worldwide – the “Federal Reserve System”. People need a scapegoat and the greedy CEOs work very nicely. Meanwhile the Gadianton Robbers who infest the halls of the Marriner S. Eccles building get away unnoticed.

  15. Josh Williams
    November 16, 2008 at 10:24 pm #

    It’s indisputable that a free and independent press is one of the cornerstones of a free and stable democratic society. Sadly this cannot be said of most current news outlets.

    My opinion is the problem of today’s News is twofold.

    -The first is that a majority of “traditional” news media are owned by a handful of huge and powerful holding companies. It’s an open secret that such holding companies have co-opted their subsidiary news outlets (by systematically controlling what is and isn’t reported, down to the very letter.) Thus converting them from sources of critical information, into mere tools for projecting an “image,” which is profitable to the holding company. In other words, a sort of “propaganda of silence.”

    The obvious result of this is that the new corporate news will almost never report in ways which are critical of the government; as riddled as it is with corporate interest as well. neither will such reporting be accurate or attempt to be unbiased. Also, under no circumstances will there be any reporting on any industry or corporation whatsoever, no matter how damning or mundane the story. Well…. besides the occasional glowing praise of this or that business venture.

    For example, It’s old news that Rupert Murdoch and all of fox news were major players, colluding with the white house in order to “sell” the Iraq war.

    -The second problem, however, is far greater and much more serious, and it is this. The average American simply doesn’t know what is good news and what is bad news, nor does he/she know the difference between good information and bad information.

    This makes the problem of corporate news ownership and control trivial in some ways, when the majority of America can’t tell the difference!

    In the age of the internet, now that Average Joe has access to the collective knowledge of the world, he finds he lacks the judgment and critical thinking skills needed to filter it. The sheer volume of information becomes a liability to him, not an asset, in some ways.

  16. Josh Williams
    November 16, 2008 at 11:00 pm #

    More about ignorance:

    Connor, you mentioned an “entitlement mentality” in America, in your last post. I think there’s truth to the view that a lot of people let themselves to be spoon-fed their news, without really trying to bite the hand that feeds them. Even among those that’re aware there’s a problem.

    I’ve encountered the unconscious belief that “The News” is morally unassailable……..(yet another image which is carefully cultivated by corporations.) Other times, I’ve seen people are rightly skeptical, but lapse into apathy without trying to further develop their information-gathering skills. Either way, the propagandists win. Compounding this is when a person egocentrically assumes they “have the corner on truth,” and that no further information is needed. Everybody (except me!) is guilty of this, the bias of rushing to judgment, rather than facing and accepting uncertainty. This is another part of feeling “entitled”, I think; believing that getting what’s truly valuable to us should be easy.

    Of course there’s nothing new about ignorance. Arguably, it’s just that much more damaging and dangerous these days. when finding good information is more vital than ever.

  17. Clumpy
    November 17, 2008 at 3:02 pm #

    It is interesting. Which is the bigger story?: A bill being passed in California attempting to define marriage in a particular way, or an unconstitutional bill passed by the president allowing unlimited, unwarranted searches and seizures? Nobody wants to bite that hand so nobody does the right thing and reports on the real issues.

    (Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch praises bloggers for reporting on issues the mainstream media ignores and not patronizing to their audience. He’s like: “It’s too late for meeee! Save yourself!!!”)

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