One of the remarkable things about watching media members interview politicians these days is just how bad the questions are. The journalist inevitably starts with a softball set up question that allows the candidate to offer some version of their stump speech for an answer. The journalist either follows up with a second softball on the same topic, or moves on. Notably, the more outrageous the candidate’s claim, the more inclined the journalist is to just move on … to not challenge the candidate’s comment.
There are lots of reasons for this—journalists are for the most part generalists, for example, and so usually lack the technical knowledge they would need to challenge the candidate’s comments. This is one of the reasons Newt Gingrich gets away with a lot of the twaddle he spews: the people asking him the question don’t know why his statements are nonsense (e.g., the Palestinians are an “invented” people), and so let him slide.
But I want to suggest another reason why so many journalists’ questions have gotten so lame: the problem of access.
See, for a long time elected leaders and other politicians struggled to get noticed by the media, especially television. They had to subject themselves to rigorous questioning and meaningful dialogue with reporters if they wanted to get access to television and thus an opportunity to promote their agenda. Engagement was the price of access—politicians had to agree to real interaction with the media if they wanted access to that most precious of resources: TV time.
Today, the situation is entirely reversed. Things like internet video streaming, the ubiquity of blog posts, and the emergence of multiple and niche “news” networks desperate to fill programming time in an over-saturated market have worked to create a world in which pretty much anyone can get access to some means to advance their message. There is intense competition for the good “get”: the interview that will draw attention to the media source. In other words, the world of access has been turned upside down: where politicians once clamored for attention, and were willing to face real questions in order to earn their way into the spotlight, now politicians and other leaders are in a position to choose which, if any, outlets in which they wish to advance their message. Leaders choose journalists and networks, not the other way around.
One consequence of this has been the rise of “pet” media. For conservatives, it’s FOX: once FOX is on your side, you know FOX will never ask a serious question or otherwise challenge your use of their network to spin your agenda. MSNBC does something similar with liberal politicians. The price of “winning” an interview is to softball it once you get it. It is the politician setting the tone of the conversation, not the journalist.
And what happens if you transgress? If you are a journalist who gets a good interview but then actually follows up with tough questions, etc? Well, it’s obvious: you lose access. The political leader and all their supporters never go on your show or talk to you or your colleagues again. They withdraw that which is precious—access—and leave you with a void to try to fill with content.
Which you of course are reluctant to face. And your producer or editor is even less reluctant to face, since they have to pay the unit’s bills. So the message from the top is clear: play along. Otherwise we lose money—and you lose your job.
So we get wussy questions followed by bad answers followed by distractions and irrelevancies. Ironically, increased opportunities to explore the political universe has made it possible for politicians to seemingly be on the air all the time, but never to say anything meaningful.
Which is exactly how they like it.
Bolded for emphasis. This is a great read, which will become increasingly relevant over the next 11 months.