Scientist Carl Sagan once wrote: "There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question."
Unfortunately, journalists covering Donald Trump's first press conference as president-elect proved Sagan wrong. They asked a ton of dumb questions.
And if the four years of a Trump presidency are going to be any good for democracy, journalists need to stop trying to be sycophants and shouters and start trying to be who they need to be: Watchdogs holding power to account.
They can start by embracing one fact: A dumb question is a question that doesn't get an answer.
Last week's press conference was the first for Trump in 167 days, since late July, a sign that the new president is not going to give reporters many opportunities to question him. There was a lot to cover -- his refusal to release his tax records, the choices he has made for his cabinet, his agenda for the first 100 days of his presidency and sensational allegations that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election.
The best question he was asked was this one: "Mr. President-elect, can you stand here today, once and for all, and say that no one connected to you or your campaign had any contact with Russia leading up to or during the presidential campaign?"
Unfortunately, the reporter made a fatal error and added a second question before Trump could answer: "And if you do indeed believe that Russia was behind the hacking, what is your message to Vladimir Putin right now?"
Naturally, Trump chose only to answer the second one. He said Putin should stop. "Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I'm leading it than when other people have led it. You will see that."
It was a liminal moment and does not bode well for how journalists will behave. The press conference degenerated into a shouting match between Trump and reporters for CNN, which a day earlier reported that the heads of the major U.S. intelligence agencies had briefed Trump and President Barack Obama about claims that Moscow had mounted a secret operation to co-opt or cultivate Trump, that there were extensive communications between people close to Trump and Russians during the presidential campaign, and that Russia had collected compromising material on Trump during his travels to the country.
Trump was asked to deny that, and the clumsy double-barrelled question allowed him to slip away without answering. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
A few days later, Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov confirmed that "there were contacts" with the Trump team. "Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage," he told the state news agency, which obviously knew how to ask a good question.
The reporters in Washington, on the other hand, seemed to act as show-offs, firing off their rehearsed questions like machine-gun fire and giving him the opportunity to pick and choose.
Another example: "Do you believe the hacking was justified? And will you release your tax returns to prove what you're saying about no deals in Russia?"
Trump merely repeated what he's said before -- no tax records will be released because they're being audited.
Another example of a grab-bag question, for which I would have failed a journalism student:
"Are we living in Nazi Germany? What were you driving at there [a reference to this tweet by Trump]? Do you have a problem with the intelligence community? And on the Supreme Court, what's the timeline? You said a while ago you are down to four. Have you conducted those interviews yet? What the timeline for a nomination? And on the border fence, it now appears clear U.S. taxpayers will have to pay for it upfront. What is your plan to get Mexico to pay for it?"
Trump addressed only the last one, saying it's a wall and not "a fence."
And what are we to make of this exchange, which also yielded nothing but dead air?
Q: Do you think President Obama went too far with the sanctions he put on Russia after the hacking?
Trump: I don't say he went too far. No.
Q: Will you roll them back? What do you think of Lindsey Graham's plan to send you a bill for...
Trump: Plans to send me a bill for what?
Q: Tougher sanctions.
Trump: I hadn't heard Lindsey Graham was going to do that.
Canadian journalist John Sawatsky, who has trained print and television journalists across North America in how to ask good questions, could use the transcript of Trump's press conference as a case study in how not to do it.
The best questions, argues Sawatsky, are like clean windows.
"A clean window gives a perfect view. When we ask a question, we want to get a window into the source. When you put values in your questions, it's like putting dirt on the window. It obscures the view of the lake beyond. People shouldn't notice the question in an interview, just like they shouldn’t notice the window. They should be looking at the lake."
Instead, the reporters in Washington did not follow up on previous questions, allowed Trump to insult and dismiss CNN as "garbage," and they let him ignore the questions he didn't want to answer.
Asked what reporters need to do to cover Trump, former CBS anchor Dan Rather suggested this test: "Do the reporters who are called upon ask tough questions? Do they ask the necessary follow-up questions? If these questions go unanswered, will reporters show some solidarity of purpose by following up on others' questions -- even it means discarding their own prepared questions?"
But the bigger question is whether the news media are going to stop being cheerleaders and rediscover their spines. Their bosses might not find that profitable.
Remember what CBS Chairman Les Moonves said not long ago about the Trump campaign: "It may not be good for America but it's damn good for CBS." He added: "Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now?...The money's rolling in and this is fun...I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon
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