Questioning the Questions

Both Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer are hosts on the Jim Lehrer Newshour on PBS. Both they and the show are highly respected, and yet, I can rarely bring myself to watch it (or listen to it on the radio) any more. The reason is that it devolves all too often into talking head situations where they put on two people on opposite sides of an issue and let them shout it out, without striving for deeper analysis. More generally, they fall into the all-too-common trap of giving equal time to both sides in a debate (usually Dems vs. GOP) and considering that to be “balanced.” This is a weak way to go under the best of circumstances, and it’s completely useless during the campaign season, when both sides are spinning out of control. What we need is a media that will ask tough questions and cut through the crap. What we need is a media that will let us know when one side or the other is just out-and-out _lying_, which happens under all Administrations, but has been especially widespread with this one.

Anyway, given all that, I can see why both sides figured the Newshour folks would be good moderators for the debates. They’ve got the journalistic pedigree, but they also have a solid rep for letting each side have its say and not getting in the way with a bothersome insistence on finding “the truth.” And while Lehrer asked hard, searching questions that got beyond this mold, Ifill’s questions last night reflected that very shallow sense of fairness represented on the Newshour — she often framed confrontational questions, phrased the way that the other side would want them phrased.

Here are some of Lehrer’s questions:

— As president, what would you do, specifically, in addition to or differently to increase the homeland security of the United States than what President Bush is doing?
— Speaking of Vietnam, you spoke to Congress in 1971, after you came back from Vietnam, and you said, quote, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” . . . Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?
— Can you give us specifics, in terms of a scenario, time lines, et cetera, for ending major U.S. military involvement in Iraq?
— Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another preemptive military action?
— Senator Kerry, you mentioned Darfur, the Darfur region of Sudan. Fifty thousand people have already died in that area. More than a million are homeless. And it’s been labeled an act of ongoing genocide. Yet neither one of you or anyone else connected with your campaigns or your administration that I can find has discussed the possibility of sending in troops . . . Why not?

Only rarely were the candidates able to rise to the level of these questions. More often they responded broadly to the topic but were short on the specific detail Lehrer was asking for.

Here are some of Ifill’s:

— Part of what you have said and Senator Kerry has said that you are going to do in order to get us out of the problems in Iraq is to internationalize the effort . . . Yet French and German officials have both said they have no intention even if John Kerry is elected of sending any troops into Iraq for any peacekeeping effort. Does that make your effort or your plan to internationalize this effort seem kind of naive?
— This one is for you, Mr. Vice President. President Bush has derided in John Kerry for putting a trial lawyer on the ticket. You yourself have said that lawsuits are partly to blame for higher medical costs. Are you willing to say that John Edwards, sitting here, has been part of the problem?
— Do you feel personally attacked when Vice President Cheney talks about liability reform and tort reform and the president talks about having a trial lawyer on the ticket?
— Flip-flopping has become a recurring theme in this campaign, you may have noticed . . . Senator Kerry changed his mind about whether to vote to authorize the president to go to war. President Bush changed his mind about whether a homeland security department was a good idea or a 9/11 Commission was a good idea . . . What’s wrong with a little flip-flop every now and then?

That first one is a good example of something she did often — ask a good question but end it with an inexplicable bit of baiting. Those middle two were the worst — first actually _fishing_ for Cheney to attack his opponent, and then, in essence, asking Edwards to say how he “feels” about it. The flip-flop question wasn’t as bad as I remembered, in that Ifill wasn’t just targetting Kerry with it. And at root there’s an OK question here: “Isn’t it all right for policymakers to change their minds when confronted by new information?” or something to that effect. But instead of asking that, she invokes the sound bite language of a shallow campaign ploy.

On Friday we’re out of Newshour land; the debate will be hosted by Charles Gibson of Good Morning America, of whom I know nuthin’. We’ll see how it goes.