Every journalist has occasion to ask a question to which he or she already knows the answer. It’s part of the job, but we still must ask our authoritative sources whom we can quote.
Sometimes a journalist will ask a leading question, one that seeks a particular answer from the source. TV sports reporters are the best in the business at this, which is why I typically turn off the tube as soon as my game of choice is over. I can’t tell you how many times I have puked after hearing an on-the-field sports reporter ask a baseball player, “How excited were you to hit that home run?” or a quarterback, “How fantastic was that throw you made for the touchdown?” It would be natural for a player to feel excitement at having smacked the ball over the fence, but a true journalist can’t assume that. If that player was Barry Bonds, for example, the player might feel he was entitled to hit the home run. If it was Tim Tebow, the player might feel that God is more fantastic than any football play. The proper way to ask the question would be “How did you feel after hitting the home run?” and allow the player to freely express his emotions.
News reporters do the same thing sometimes, though their questions often are more callous.
“Mrs. Victim, how sad are you that your house burned down and all your pets killed?”
“Mr. Entrepreneur, how difficult is it to be in business during a bad economy?”
“Mr. President, how humiliated were you when you told your wife about the intern?”
In all aspects of life, whether work or play, we all know what we want and we conduct our searches toward that end. Knowing that others might have a differing opinion or motivation, we shape our inquiries to fit our desires and try to reshape the desires of others to fit our inquiries.
“Dad, how much allowance would you like to give me?”
“Son, how soon would you like to finish your homework?”
“Wife, wouldn’t you be happier if I finished watching this game instead of doing the dishes?”
“Husband, wouldn’t it be sad if your manhood and the blade of this knife had a sudden, unexpected encounter?”
Politicians do the same thing and we can expect a lot of it in the coming months. It started already at my house in the form of a flier received in the mail from Congressman Mark Amodei. He sent me a list of questions to answer so he would know how best to represent me in Washington. Among them was: “Knowing that job creation is the top issue facing Nevada, please check the top three areas you believe are most critical to restoring our economy.” Among my 10 choices were: halting harmful federal regulations; keeping taxes low; improving our education system; and eliminating outdated federal programs.
Amodei started with an assumption about job growth being the top issue in Nevada. He could be correct, but using me as an example (he did send me the flier, after all), I have a job but I also have a mortgage that is too high and a bad loan on my house. For me, the housing market is a bigger issue. But I’ll play along with Amodei about job creation. He gave me a choice about halting harmful federal regulations but not one to enact helpful regulations. I have a choice to keep taxes low, but what if I also want to promote increased international trade and tourism, another of Amodei’s options? Doesn’t government need tax money to pay for this promotion? And who is to say taxes are low now? Instead of keeping them low, maybe I think they are high and want them to be low.
Another question was, “In your opinion, which is the bigger threat to America in the future?” My choices: big government or big business. Where is terrorism on this list? Isn’t that why we’ve been sending troops to the Middle East for the last decade, to get rid of the biggest threat to America? The way this question is framed, the poorly educated, unemployed, overregulated average Nevada constituent reading this flier is going to walk away talking about big government and big business being his mortal enemies. It’s as though Amodei is telling us, not asking us, that these are America’s biggest threats.
I have a question for Amodei: Would you like me to vote for another candidate specifically or just write in the name of someone I will like better? Perhaps that is part of the problem: We’ve become a multiple-choice society instead of one that is allowed to think for itself. Rather than come up with a thoughtful response of our own, we are given a list from which to choose and make life-altering decisions by. The problem is when we don’t like the options we’re given but pick one anyway and don’t try to question the list.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to decide what to have for dinner. I’ll probably just pick whatever is in the freezer.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.