Helen Thomas will no longer be sitting in the front row of the White House press briefing room. The abrupt end to her career has triggered many tributes to Thomas’ supposedly tough questioning.
But it was not tough. A tough question is a question that’s hard to answer. But any moderately skilled flack understood precisely how to deflect Helen Thomas’ histrionic denunciations:
Q: “When will you stop killing people?”
A: “Helen, the president regrets every lost life, but he will never apologize for the sacrifices of our brave men and women in uniform as they keep America safe.”
In fact, calling on Helen Thomas was a notorious method for a hard-pressed White House press secretary to EVADE tough questions from the rest of the press corps. A zany, out-of-left-field protest from Thomas would disrupt a flow of unwelcome queries, maybe spark a tension-breaking laugh, maybe change the subject altogether.
The test of a tough question is not: Does it pack a lot of anger into words ending with an interrogation point?
The test of a tough question is: Does it elicit a revealing answer? The answer is the point, not the question. It was Katie Couric’s uncombative inquiries—not Charlie Gibson’s pedagogic condescension—that revealed the real Sarah Palin.
But modern media seem to push interviewers toward confrontation more than inquisition. It seems inescapable: When the TV cameras are on, the finger-jabbing starts.
Which leads me to a suggestion: If we want information, we should turn the cameras off. Let’s start with the most useless hour in television, the daily White House press briefing.
Through most of modern presidential history, the press secretary met the press on the record, but off camera. But in the Clinton administration, press secretary Michael McCurry made a fateful decision: He authorized the broadcast of the briefing session.
Television changed everything. Suddenly all participants began to perform. The press secretary became star of a daily television show – to be judged by his or her skill at evasion and blame-shifting. I don’t want to romanticize the pre-TV days. There was plenty of spin then, too. But for the past decade and a half, the daily press briefing has been rendered nearly 100 percent content-free.
It’s against that phony background that Helen Thomas’ outbursts stood out as moments of seeming authenticity. It didn’t matter that these outbursts were useless journalism. (Just about everything that happens in that room is useless.) Thomas gave voice to the angry feelings of anti-Bush television viewers. Increasingly, it seems that voicing feelings is what we want our news anchors to do, whether it’s Beck and O’Reilly or Olbermann and Maddow.
If this is a spectacle you enjoy, well go right ahead and enjoy it. But don’t call it “asking the tough questions.” Those are the questions asked by Brian Lamb or Ted Koppel or Jake Tapper or David Gregory. They are questions backed by research, that follow logical lines of interrogation, and that direct the spotlight to the person answering, not the person asking. They are the kinds of questions made obsolete when question period is replaced by show time.