Interviews: Questioning the question

Media Matters criticized a question Wolf Blitzer asked about Hillary Clinton and now it is getting criticized, in turn, by Newsday‘s political blogger and Politico‘s blogging boss, who argue that it’s wrong to question Blitzer’s question — a continuation of the debate lately on the state of the interview. I’m siding with Media Matters on this. They said:

On the May 14 edition of CNN’s The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer asked whether former President Bill Clinton’s recent campaign advertisement on behalf of his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY), is “the act of a supportive husband or a sign the Clinton campaign is feeling desperate.” Blitzer offered no basis for his suggestion that the Clinton campaign may be “feeling desperate” and did not mention a recent Newsweek poll that shows Sen. Clinton ahead of all the other leading presidential candidates in head-to-head races (though within the margin-of-error in some matchups).

Then Glenn Thrush of Newsday and Ben Smith of Politico went after Media Matters defending journalists’ right, even responsibility, to ask loaded questions. They completely miss the point. Blitzer’s question communicated information that was not backed up: that the Clinton campaign is “feeling desperate.” Who says? please. Let’s see some figures, let’s hear some quotes. Without them, this is Blitzer doing nothing more than issuing a casual, undocumented opinion: a sheep in Wolf’s query.

But Thrush and Smith seem to think that statements followed by a question mark are fair game. Says Thursh:

Question 1: How does a reporter decide what’s fair and factual without asking questions whose premises are, from time to time, unfair and unfactual?

Question 2: Who gets to judge whether a question is based on “discernible fact” or “loaded”? [Media Matters founder] Brock?

Question 3: What on God’s green earth is a discernible fact anyway?

Question 4: Don’t we get paid to ask loaded questions? (Like, say, “What happened to the rest of that tape, Mr. Nixon?”)

It’s only natural that politicians and their surrogates want to limit, restrict or shape reporters’ questions. And it’s only natural that reporters think the public would be a whole better served if they focused on providing answers instead.

I’d say we have the right to question the journalist, in turn: Mr. Blitzer, how do you know that the campaign is “desperate.” Who said so? On what basis do you say that now? And we are right to question the practice of throwing out undocumented facts as part of a question: the question is thus not a question but a statement.

Thrush and Smith think that the journalist remains in charge of the interview. No. Welcome to the two-way world. Media Matters’ questioning of Blitzer is quite justified. He’s not the only one to ask questions anymore.

But, of course, what’s really being challenged here is horse-race coverage. Blitzer decided all on his lonesome that Clinton’s campaign is lagging and that’s just as well-documented and reported as all reporters’ calls of the race. It’s empty. And it’s time to call them on it.