Journalism 101: Ask Questions, But Let Answers Speak for Themselves
I was struck by the confluence of two stories last week that reflected either directly or indirectly on how people in my profession -- journalism -- do their jobs.
One piece was an op-ed by David Harsanyi at The Federalist titled "Political Journalists Are Trying To Gaslight America." The second was an interview at Spiegel Online with President Obama’s former adviser Ben Rhodes (pictured).
The premise of Harsanyi's piece is that "In the past week, I’ve noticed a number of Democrats and liberal journalists refusing to concede inconvenient facts." Don't let the rhetorical device bother you. I'm pretty sure that Harsanyi didn't really just discover that liberal journalists refuse to concede "inconvenient facts." But he did find a plethora of examples in the news right now that showed stunning duplicity by journalists in covering up for left-wing politicians.
Gaslighting, in case you don't know, is the name given to the process of convincing an innocent person to disbelieve the truth (and doubt their own sanity) by promoting a lie through deception, manipulation and false claims of authority. It comes from the name of a 1944 movie about a woman being manipulated by her husband into thinking she is going insane, but it has seen a resurgence in use since the mass media have become such obvious tools of propaganda and social manipulation.
Harsanyi cites several examples of journalists covering up the truth in the current topics of late-term abortion and the Green New Deal, showing in both cases how the president’s blunt but accurate words in his El Paso speech were turned into apparent falsehoods by reporters misstating the facts (and they don’t even have the benefit of Charles Boyer’s soothing voice).
“No matter how many times ... you quote the plain language of the Virginia or New York abortion bills, they [Democrats and liberal journalists] won’t acknowledge that both legalize the procedure until the moment of birth for virtually any reason,” Harsanyi writes, and then gives examples.
Regarding the Green New Deal, Harsanyi again provides plain evidence that reporters were bending over backwards to cover up for the disastrous rollout of the revolutionary legislation on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s website. The contention that the FAQ document published by Ocasio-Cortez was simply an errant draft that was mistakenly posted online is met with appropriate ridicule by Harsanyi:
“Supposedly, her chief of staff accidentally create[d] a PDF of a draft and then accidentally posted it and then accidentally left it up for hours and hours while critics were dissecting it and forgot to mention it was only a draft. Why someone would want to eliminate cars, planes, and beef in any draft of a policy proposal is still a mystery. In any event, Ocasio-Cortez also accidentally sent the very same FAQ to NPR, and then accidentally her staff interviewed for a piece that was built around the accidentally posted FAQ. No adult, much less a skeptical journalist, would believe such a ridiculous story.”
The examples of gaslighting that Harsanyi provides are partly from social media, but many examples exist of mainstream media using sleight of hand to mislead readers that contentions by President Trump are to be disbelieved on their face. A common practice, for instance, is to quote an opinion uttered by the president in a speech or press conference, and then to describe the utterance as being offered “without evidence.” Hot Tip for Mainstream Media: Opinions don’t need to be accompanied by evidence. If you don’t want to know what the president thinks, don’t ask him questions.
Which brings me to my thesis about good journalism: “Ask the right questions and let the answers speak for themselves.” The American people don’t need to have reality filtered through the cannabis-enriched brain cells of our celebrity media elites, and most people have figured that out. President Trump certainly did, which is why he uses Twitter as his primary communication platform. While reporters and pundits (is there a difference anymore?) insist on translating and interpreting Trump’s tweets, their participation in getting the story out is at best superfluous. With Twitter, the president doesn’t even need to wait for reporters to ask questions, let alone translate his words for the poor befuddled common folk.
Yet we can’t just leave elected officials and others in positions of power completely unaccountable. The free press is essential to eliciting information and distributing it to the electorate and to the citizenry in general. So, if we increasingly can’t trust the mainstream media to report the facts without “gaslighting” the public, what are our best options?
The answer for me came in that story from Der Spiegel. The interview with Ben Rhodes took the form of a Q&A. It’s not the most elegant form of reporting, but it has the distinct advantage of transparency. What exactly did the reporter ask, and what level of responsiveness did the subject of the interview exhibit? With a Q&A, we don’t have to guess, whereas with any typical five-person-bylined story in the Washington Post or the New York Times, we have no idea what questions were asked, nor can we ascertain whether the reporters’ characterization of the answers is trustworthy. How much more enlightening it is to read the interview in whole.
What was most remarkable about the Spiegel interview was that the questions proved to be more interesting than the answers, and most interesting of all is how Rhodes spun every challenge to his left-wing orthodoxy into, well, another attack on Trump. Here’s how it started:
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Rhodes, would you agree that Donald Trump's foreign policy is much better than its reputation?
Rhodes: No. Trump's approach is rapidly accelerating the diminution of American influence, the spread of antidemocratic values and the increased difficulty in solving complex political problems, like climate change.
In truth the interview could have ended after the first declarative NO that Rhodes uttered after that first surprising question since he refuses to budge an inch toward giving Trump any credit for his many successes, but it is so much more entertaining to watch Rhodes come up with simplistic answers to Spiegel’s thoughtful questions. When exactly did Spiegel become a conservative Trump-loving newspaper, Rhodes must have been asking himself. The questions were indeed surprising, considering Der Spiegel’s reputation for leaning left. Listen:
- [H]asn't [Trump] been rather effective on some issues? He has forced NATO member states to increase their defense budgets. He's tough on China, which could be beneficial not only for the U.S., but for Europe as well. And he is standing up to Iran's military ambitions.
- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is full of praise for Trump. He says that NATO member states will spend an additional $100 billion on defense by the end of next year.
- Like Obama, he [Trump] has demanded that Europe -- Germany in particular -- do more in the Middle East.
- Around two months after taking office, Trump ordered a limited strike against the Syrian air force after Assad's troops yet again used a nerve agent against civilians. Why did Obama never do something similar?
You get the idea. How refreshing to see a left-wing politico grilled instead of fed softball questions. Unlike their cousins in the American media, German reporters apparently prefer not to massage the egos of their interview subjects.
Interestingly, if Der Spiegel had written the story with a typical New York Times approach, it would have come across as Ben Rhodes lambasting President Trump as a buffoon and celebrating his ex-boss, but with the skeptical questions interspersed amid Rhodes’ rhetoric, you get the sense of a man out of touch with reality — and all without a single interpretation by a know-it-all reporter. Hear, hear!
“Ask the right questions and let the answers speak for themselves.”