Mike Kueber's Blog

September 23, 2011

Gotcha questions

Filed under: Issues,Media,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:35 pm
Tags: , , , ,

The Urban Dictionary defines gotcha questions as “simple, straight-forward questions that cannot be answered by inept politicians.”  There’s a lot of truth to that tongue-in-cheek definition, and an example would be Sarah Palin’s assertion of “gotcha journalism” when Katie Couric asked her what newspapers and magazines she read to stay informed on world affairs.

A more conventional definition of gotcha journalism can be found in Wikipedia:

  • A term used to describe methods of interviewing which are designed to entrap interviewees into making statements which are damaging or discreditable to their cause, character, integrity, or reputation.  The aim is to make film or sound recordings of the interview which can be selectively edited, compiled, and broadcast or published to show the subject in an unfavorable light.”

The key to this definition is that it involves a journalist trying to make the subject look bad by using unfair questions or editing.  Palin never argued that Couric’s question was unfair, but she did claim that Couric edited out several substantive foreign-policy responses that Palin did well on, and retained the one where she stumbled.

I disagree with Palin on this – it would have been journalistic malpractice to edit out the failure of a stature-challenged vice-presidential to identify any magazine or newspaper that she read to keep up on world affairs.

A different form of gotcha question is one that comes out of “left field,” – i.e., one that you have never thought about.  During my congressional campaign, I fielded one of these questions during the taping of a public-TV interview in which I was given 90 seconds to respond to each question.  “What new programs would you support that enhance the ability of people who are currently living paycheck to paycheck to save for their retirement?”

I was dumbfounded.  The first part of the question focused on living paycheck to paycheck and the second part concerned saving for their retirement.  The question was further complicated because I was running as a fiscal conservative who wanted to reduce government spending, not create expensive new programs.  As you might expect, I stumbled badly, not wanting to be heartless, and mumbled something about improving the availability and effectiveness of the 401(k).

Last night Rick Perry fielded a question that came from even deeper right field.  He was asked what he would do if he was suddenly told about a rebellion in Pakistan that resulted in its nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists.  Several pundits have acknowledged that this was a tough question (oh, really?), yet criticized Perry for stumbling with his response and mumbling something about the need to establish relations with all the key parties, including India.

Like the question to me, this question is probably something that Perry had never expected and hadn’t pre-formulated a response.  Worse, it was not conducive to an ad-libbed response.  If Perry were given a minute or two to think, or if he were afforded a lifeline (like on Who Wants to be a Millionaire), I’m sure he could have come up with something.

As I was on my bike ride today, twelve hours after the debate, the perfect answer came to me – I would immediately get on the phone
with Jack Bauer.

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