- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

Dumb questions

“None of the demands are met,” a rival publication quoted an angry Sunni negotiator as saying after the Iraqi parliament decided to make no further changes in a draft constitution last weekend.

“Things will deteriorate in every aspect,” continued the Sunni negotiator, Salih Mutlak. “The stability will be less. The violence will be up. The demonstrations on the street will be up.”

The article then quoted Mr. Mutlak as saying legislators had been told to turn up at 3 p.m. the next day “to celebrate.” Asked if he felt like celebrating, the article continued, Mr. Mutlak responded, “What do you think?”

It was a really dumb question, right?

Well, yes, but my sympathy is with the reporter. Journalists are often obliged to ask an obvious question, not because they can’t figure out the answer but because they need to hear the interviewee say it.

It’s not good enough for a reporter simply to say that a Sunni negotiator was obviously angry. He needs to get the negotiator to tell us how angry he is so it can be described in his words, not the reporter’s.

It is the same for reporters covering the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans, Southern Mississippi and Alabama.

The misery of the victims is evident — in their faces, in their tattered clothes, in the ruined homes behind them.

But the public wants to hear them express it, so the reporters, feeling ridiculous, screw up their courage and ask, “How did it feel to have your only child ripped out of your arms by the storm and carried away?”

Some of my own worst experiences asking dumb questions came early in my career when I found myself covering major league baseball. As soon as the last out was recorded in the ninth inning, we reporters all rushed down to the winning team’s dressing room, notepads in hand.

I knew well enough what I wanted — that one telling quote from the star of the game that would bring my story to life: “My heart stopped in my throat as I waited to see whether the ball would clear the center field fence,” said the power-hitting first baseman of his game-winning drive in the bottom of the eighth.

Masters of evasion

The problem is that the first baseman, as often as not, was an arrogant, self-centered jerk who had been asked “how it felt” to get the big hit a hundred times before. My usual strategy was to take up a position near the player, pen in hand, and wait silently for some other reporter to get yelled at for asking such a dumb question.

And that was in the winners’ dressing room. Interviewing the losers was even worse.

Life improved when I graduated to interviewing politicians, who, unlike ballplayers, have to worry about what the public thinks of them and can’t afford to be totally rude to reporters.

Instead they become masters of evasion, adept at speaking at length in response to a question without ever really answering it.

We have all watched televised press conferences in which a few reporters seize their moment before a national audience to show off their erudition and insight with elaborate and meaningless questions. Others, with a bias, try to score some political point or other.

But at a press conference or a one-on-one interview, the good reporters — and most are good — put a lot of thought into trying to craft questions that will force the speaker to provide original and meaningful comments on a significant issue.

It seldom works. Politicians do their own homework and arrive for an interview or press conference with a good idea of what they will say on any particular issue. Usually they honor the questions only in passing before launching into whatever talking points they prepared in advance.

All in all, it becomes a kind of intellectual wrestling match, stimulating for interviewer and interviewee alike. And once in a while it produces real news.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide