During the course of my career I’ve often been asked to speak to young reporters and students regarding the art of questioning.
It boils down to “Ask the darn question.”
There is an art to crafting a question and there is a gentle way to proceed with questions depending on the subject, the topic and a variety of other variables including but not limited to the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.
At the end of the day, you must simply pull the trigger and ask the question.
Helen Thomas told me in the White House it wasn’t important to always get a question answered, but it was very important to get them asked.
Sometimes this employs the process of a “megaphone mouth” (those among us who grew up in the last century always think of Sam Donaldson) and sometimes you want to employ tactics similar to Columbo. (Another reference from a different generation. Look it up).
Still, the idea remains to ask the question. If that offends someone – don’t worry about it. I never do.
You are going to meet people who do not want to answer your questions. They will cut you off. They will speak down to you. They will limit your access to them – all in an attempt to thwart the delivery of information to you.
This is particularly true of criminals, some celebrities and most politicians who all want to limit your access to real information for self-serving reasons.
If the person on the receiving end of your question is average at deflection you will get no answer, a non-answer or words that sound like a baby jabbering.
If the one being questioned is good at deflection you may come off as rude, or abrasive for having the audacity to ask someone a question they didn’t want to answer.
“I’m not advocating rudeness . . . but I’m far more concerned about the reporters who are either too afraid or too disinclined to ask a question,” Donaldson said.
Still, many young reporters are intimidated by those in a position of authority or celebrity – not to mention really infamous criminals – and bite their tongue at the risk of seeming rude, outlandish or some other apparently socially unacceptable form of conduct.
And the interview subjects know this and use it to their benefit.
I often implore young reporters not to worry. It is a tactic. Press on. True, it would be exceptionally nice to sit down in a calm atmosphere and have a constructive on-the-record conversation with any office holder, celebrity or nefarious rake, but chances are you’re not going to live in that vacuum.
You live in a world as a reporter where people want to avoid you. Others will judge you and still others will scream for no reason at all – other than the fact they need to feel angry for some reason.
Ignore all of it and ask the question.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, the former editor of the Washington Times once said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” that “Nobody is challenging your right to challenge the president; what I’m challenging is your right to be rude.”
Some firmly believe you must demure to those in power, finding the perfect moment over tea and biscuits to inquire on policy matters while we chat quietly.
“We’re gutless. We’re spineless,” CBS’s Dan Rather once told the Boston Herald. “There’s no joy in saying this, but beginning in the 1980s, the American press by and large somehow began to operate on the theory that the first order of business was to be popular with the person, or organization or institution that you cover.”
There are a wide variety of examples of this attitude in American Journalism today.
I abhor that attitude.
Last week I challenged the White House on their ability to show “empathy” for the young children being ripped from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico.
Those who didn’t want to discuss that issue said I was trying to make it about me. I was rude.
I’ve been there before. In 1991 it was de Borchgrave speaking about me after I aggressively questioned President George Bush at a news conference and Bush wouldn’t answer my question.
Remember your H.L. Mencken, I coach reporters. Do not get too close to those you cover. Do not make the mistake of believing they are your friends, else; “They come in as newspapermen,” Mencken said. “Trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tinhorn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.”
A true reporter is an outsider – a disinterested third-party observer who doesn’t mind walking down the middle of the aisle tossing bombs right and left.
Any and all ideas need to be examined. Being a critic of one side doesn’t make you a fan of the other.
At the end of the day you may make a lonely walk, but there is a peace of mind in being true to yourself.
But . . . just ask the question.