The Gotcha Game

by Howard Kurtz

First Newt lashed out at a Fox moderator, then Christine walked off Piers Morgan-both over questions they deemed unfair.

Everyone in public life, it seems, is complaining about the questions they’re being asked.

Newt Gingrich rips a Fox News debate moderator for asking a “gotcha” question about his struggling campaign. Another panelist gets booed for asking Michele Bachmann about her comment that women should be submissive to their husbands. Christine O’Donnell, the failed Senate candidate in Delaware, walks out on Piers Morgan after refusing to answer queries about what she wrote in the very book she’s promoting.

What’s going on here?

In part, it’s about working the media refs. Pushing back against the inquisitors as unfair bullies deflects attention from the question you don’t want to answer. Journalists, who aren’t winning any popularity contests these days, can be useful foils, especially for Republicans.

But do the complainers have a point? What exactly is a gotcha question, anyway?

I’d define it as an attempt to trap someone into an embarrassing response by asking about something that the public figure is unlikely to know, that’s contradicted by something deep in his or her past, or that’s so personal as to be out of bounds.

That was hardly the case last week when CNN’s Morgan was questioning O’Donnell, the GOP candidate perhaps best remembered for her I-am-not-a-witch commercial.

MORGAN: What is your view of gay marriage, for example?

O’DONNELL: I address that stuff in the book.

MORGAN: You can’t—you’re on here to promote the damn book. So, you can’t keep saying it’s all in the book. You got to repeat some of it.

O’DONNELL: I’m here to talk about the book.

MORGAN: Yes. I’m talking about the book. You keep saying it’s all in the book. So, tell me what’s in the book.

After they sparred for a bit, O’Donnell told her British interviewer that he was being “a little bit rude,” that gay marriage is “not a topic that I choose to embrace,” and summed up with a stunning misunderstanding of the media culture: “Don’t you think as a host, if I say this is what I want to talk about, that’s what we should address?”

Actually, no. If you’re peddling a book, any sentence contained within is fair game. If you want to control the conversation, buy a commercial. (Though don’t spend any time feeling sorry for either party. The walkout has given Morgan his best buzz in months, and O’Donnell got to play the victim in other interviews, accusing him on the Today show of “borderline sexual harassment.” Come on.)

In the debate shortly before the Iowa Straw Poll, here is the question from Fox’s Chris Wallace that Gingrich labeled as “gotcha”:

“One of the ways that we judge a candidate is the campaign they run. In June, almost your entire national campaign staff resigned, along with your staff here in Iowa. They said that you were undisciplined in campaigning and fundraising, and at last report you’re a million dollars in debt. How do you respond to people who say that your campaign has been a mess so far?”

That was a factual recitation of Gingrich’s recent campaign woes. But the former House speaker accused Wallace of “playing Mickey Mouse games”—and this to an anchor at Fox, not some liberal commentator at MSNBC.

“I think those are questions that a lot of people want to hear answers to, and you’re responsible for your record, sir,” Wallace responded.

This was hardly in the same category as Wallace’s Fox News Sunday question to Bachmann—“Are you a flake?”—which came across as condescending, and for which he later apologized.

The Iowa audience booed Wallace over the Gingrich questions, but not as lustily as it booed the Washington Examiner’s Byron York, who had the temerity to ask Bachmann about a statement she made in church five years ago that is captured on videotape. The Minnesota congresswoman had said she went into tax law at her husband’s suggestion, although she didn’t want to, noting, “The Lord said, Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.”

As president, York asked, would Bachmann be submissive to her husband?

Bachmann, to her credit, did not complain about the question and handled it well, saying she and her spouse have a relationship of mutual respect. But the Republican crowd clearly felt it was out of bounds. York later called it “a serious and legitimate question about something she has said” and that the exchange provided “a very human moment” for Bachmann.

But there are some questions that journalists shouldn’t ask—because they are based on rumor and innuendo.

In an interview last week with presidential contender Ron Paul, Fox anchor Martha MacCallum said:

“One question surfaced in The Austin Chronicle. And that question was in the form of an ad that is said to be from a Ron Paul supporter, and the question is, have you ever had sex with Governor Rick Perry? And it goes on to say, are you a stripper, an escort, or just a young hottie impressed by an arrogant, entitled governor of Texas?”

What, McCallum wanted to know, was Paul’s response?

Let’s review: The anchor repeated the totally unsubstantiated suggestions of a self-proclaimed supporter of a rival candidate that strippers, escorts, or hotties may have had sex with Perry, if only they would come forward to confirm it. MacCallum not only gave national exposure to a blatant smear, she tried to make Paul defend it, though neither he nor his campaign had anything to do with it.

The ad is the handiwork of Robert Morrow, who describes himself as “a self-employed investor and political activist” and heads the Committee Against Sexual Hypocrisy. “Is it a real group? No, it’s just me,” Morrow told Salon.

Paul wisely refused to engage, saying: “Well, I don’t know how something like that qualifies as a question on national TV as if it’s something serious … I don’t know anything about it. For me to address it would give it too much credibility.” Exactly.

Aggressive journalism is, and should be, part of the political process. The “gotcha” complaints and stalking off the set are, for the most part, self-serving hooey.

But there are some questions, even if they involve hot stuff about hotties, that don’t pass the smell test.


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