National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Asking the Right Question

Being a life-long journalist, starting for me at age seven when I produced the first edition of The Benton Star in the mighty metropolis of Avila Beach, California (population 300), it’s become clear to me that a big key to life is asking the right questions.

In 16 years running my latest paper, in four years as a White House correspondent before that, and in just keeping up with the 24-hour news cycle, it’s distressing to see too many journalists these days going for instant gratification with questions focused almost entirely on specific details of some event. They either do that, or they render themselves passive, accepting uncritically and regurgitating whatever someone tells them.

But then, these options are not unlike the way many of us ask questions about life, in general. Instant gratification and passivity account for a lot of what drives folks day to day.

Still, if you sit through a press conference, such as a daily briefing at the White House, you often see journalists pounding away at the same question over and over, hoping that the spokesman will deliver a slightly different answer.

By this means, these reporters think, they can catch the spokesman in a contradiction, or they can begin asking why he or she answered in two different ways, even if the difference was negligible. Is that really news?

Then there is the Tim Russert form of questioning, which involves getting an intern to Google past statements by a candidate or public official and then to display big-lettered excerpts used to ask the interviewee to explain the statement in terms of what may be a contrary position today. The other overly-simplified approach is to ask the person merely to comment on what someone else says about them.

These journalists’ approach, beyond getting the facts of some situation, is summed up as a big game of “gotcha.”

On the flip side, equally or even more troubling, is the lack of critical questioning, at all, the mere permission that is granted public officials and others to present their spin on events without being challenged.

This can often be the result not so much of laziness, but of journalists simply lacking confidence in a reservoir of knowledge or intellectual acumen that would enable them to challenge what someone with authority might say. In many cases, they don’t try hard enough to formulate the kind of questions that get beyond the surface of things.

One way I’ve dealt with this problem came when I did a series on “Models of Excellence” for my paper. After the usual inquiries into backgrounds and ideas of chosen personalities, I would conclude with a last question. “What is the meaning of life?,” I asked. It always drew a pause and hesitation. But I always found the answers fascinating and revealing in a special way.

Otherwise, every once in awhile, I’ve stumbled on what I think is a good question. This week I asked a congressman at a public forum, after 45 minutes of Q and A on the usual issues of the day, “What do you feel is the best path forward, overall, to bring about a peaceful and stable globe over the next 50 years?”

As a question, that might not appear so profound in this column, but in that room, when I delivered it, there was an audible reaction.

The congressman, a moderate, rocked back on his feet. He confessed that with all his study of his talking points coming into the event, he wasn’t prepared for it. Given that, though, his reply was decent enough.

He quoted Alan Greenspan, saying, “No two nations where both have McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other. They’re too busy making, selling and eating hamburgers to have the time, and the stakes are too high.” Then he talked about the importance of striving for global economic development.

I wonder how George Bush would answer the same question. I have to presume he would say something like, “The first and foremost priority is to win the war on terror.” How telling that would be, taken in contradistinction to the other, and what a sound basis it would provide for a significant evaluation of the difference.

I wonder, too, how average folks might respond to such a question with respect to their own lives.