Who Asks Better Questions, Press or Talk-Show Callers?

TRB

June 18, 1992|By TRB

On June 4, President Bush held a traditional news conference at which he was questioned by the professional journalists of the White House press corps. One week later, Ross Perot appeared on NBC's ''Today'' show, where viewers questioned him by telephone.

Here, condensed (and omitting follow-ups), are the first ten questions the professionals asked Bush. 1) Will you debate Ross Perot in the fall campaign? 2) Is it proper for a man like Mr. Perot to use his wealth to run for president, and is Mr. Perot an insider or an outsider? 3) Do the opinion polls reflect a rejection of your message? 4) Do you agree with Dan Quayle that Mr. Perot was wrong in opposing the Gulf War? 5) If you're re-elected, will you submit a balanced budget in 1994?

6) Why are you going to the Rio Earth Summit, since you're being so heavily criticized there? 7) Even though the economy is improving, you are still unpopular. How come? 8) When are you going to do in Yugoslavia what you did in Kuwait? 9) Why won't you use the ''bully pulpit'' of the presidency to take on pressure groups that prevent a balanced budget? 10) What were your dealings with Ross Perot on the MIA issue?

Here, also condensed (and omitting a joke inquiry involving a radio celebrity's sexual organ), are the first ten questions the non-professionals asked Perot: 1) When will you officially declare your candidacy? 2) Are you pro-choice or pro-life? 3) What would you do as president to put unemployed Americans back to work? 4) What are your views on farm policy, especially concerning dairy farms? 5) Would you raise taxes to balance the budget?

6) ''How do women figure in your plans?'' 7) Do you support the Brady (waiting period for handguns) Bill? 8) Do you support national health care, and, if not, what is your plan for health care reform? 9) A magazine article portrays you as a ruthless businessman. Defend yourself. 10) Can you describe some positive qualities of your opponents?

Now, I do not subscribe to today's fashionable pseudo-populism, which holds that all wisdom lies with ordinary citizens, who are rightly outraged at all those out-of-touch, inside-the-beltway cultural elitists etc. etc. On the other hand, based on this sample, I would be hard put to argue that on balance the insider professionals with press passes dangling from their necks asked better questions than the amateurs who got through to the ''Today'' 800 number. How about you?

Journalists love to agonize about their calling. This year's agony is whether the candidates are avoiding the crucial mediation of journalists by abandoning the traditional campaign mechanisms in favor of situations where they are questioned primarily by members of the public. There are two concerns. First, that untrained amateurs are no match for skilled professionals in exposing a candidate's flaws and weaknesses. And second, that semi-journalists like Phil Donohue and Larry King, not to mention non-journalists like Arsenio Hall, unhealthily muddy the distinction between serious politics and trivial show biz.

There is, no question, something eerie about the same show discussing men-who-would-be-president one day and women-who-ate-their-husbands the next. Whether this juxtaposition demeans democracy or merely reflects it is too heavy a question for today's sermonette. But the first concern, about amateur questioning, seems exaggerated. The amateurs could teach the pros a thing or two.

The most striking difference is that the pros are obsessed with process while the amateurs are obsessed with substance. We all want to know what Mr. Bush thinks about Ross Perot. But three out of the first five questions? And is the most pressing question, even about Mr. Perot, whether Mr. Bush will debate him come the fall? This is not looking for insight or even information. It's looking for a lead.

To be sure, presidential candidates should be subjected to questions more rigorous than, ''Sir, what is your position on issue X?'' But the pros' questions seemed less in the commendable spirit of ''Gotcha!'' than in the silly spirit of ''nyah, nyah.'' Did anyone expect Mr. Bush to say, ''Yes, as a matter of fact you're right -- the opinion polls do demonstrate that the voters have rejected my message''?

The cleverest question in either session was from ''Gene in Los Angeles,'' who challenged Mr. Perot to list the ''positive qualities'' of his opponents. I can't think of a way to avoid an interesting answer. Mr. Perot handled it well, giving a gracious encomium to Mr. Clinton's achievements and revealing his contempt for George Bush by praising Barbara and the kids.

Even the straightforward ''What about issue X?'' questions gave Mr. Perot enough rope to hang himself a couple times on farm policy and entitlement reform. This is better than the professional reporters' score with their body-English inquiries of the ''Do you still beat your wife?'' variety.

It would be a shame, and a loss to the system, if us pros were put completely out to pasture. But all the resentful yelps about the amateurs sound less like upholding of standards and more like fear of competition.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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