By Charles M. Blow
New York Times
Here we go again with attacks on the "mainstream media" and the invocation of the dreaded "gotcha question" to excuse poor performance and intellectual flat-footedness.
After being asked at last week's debate about his ties to the shady nutritional supplement company Mannatech and saying "I didn't have an involvement with them" and dismissing claims of a connection as "total propaganda," Ben Carson called Thursday for an overhaul of Republican debate formats.
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"Debates are supposed to be established to help the people get to know the candidate," Carson said, according to The Washington Post. "What it's turned into is — gotcha! That's silly. That's not helpful to anybody." I think the question was a fair one, and I'm not alone. Carson's business manager, Armstrong Williams, said Thursday on CNN that the question wasn't a gotcha one but an "absolutely" fair one.
And on the credibility of Carson's denial, PolitiFact ruled: "As far as we can tell, Carson was not a paid employee or official endorser of the product. However, his claim suggests he has no ties to Mannatech whatsoever. In reality, he got paid to deliver speeches to Mannatech and appeared in promotional videos, and he consistently delivered glowing reviews of the nutritional supplements. As a world-renowned surgeon, Carson's opinion on health issues carries weight, and Mannatech has used Carson's endorsement to its advantage.
"We rate Carson's claim False." The idea of the gotcha question and gotcha journalism have decades-long roots, at least. In 1999, Calvin Trillin in Time Magazine called gotcha journalism, "campaign coverage dominated by attempts to reveal youthful misbehavior." But the questions the Republican candidates received were not of that genre.
In a 1992 New York Times Magazine article about Barbara Walters, one of her producers told Bill Carter that Walters always went for the "gotcha question, the one that reveals the person." But the idea of the "gotcha question" gained new primacy in the 2008 election, when William Safire wrote in The Times of MSNBC's Chris Matthews' prediction that "The gotcha politics will begin," and noted that "Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, used the word in defense of having the audience question candidates at a CNN/YouTube debate instead of allowing reporters to have at his party's candidates. He preferred to 'let the American people back in' than endure questions 'from a press corps that wants to play gotcha!'" But perhaps it has its most resonance because of its use by the disastrously ill-equipped Republican vice presidential candidate, who repeatedly used the phase as an excuse for her train wreck interviews.
Gotcha questions have come to mean any question one doesn't want to answer, any question whose answer would or could reveal something unflattering. In a way, a question is simply a question and only becomes a gotcha if you, the answerer, feel convicted and unsettled by it. Gotcha is in the mind — and spine — of the interviewee.
Carson simply wasn't prepared for the Mannatech question and wasn't completely honest in the answer. If that is gotcha journalism, I'm here for it "every day of the week and twice on Sunday," to borrow a phrase from Mike Huckabee.
This is not to say that the debate wasn't a bit of a mess. It was. Nor is it to say that some of the questions weren't questionable. They were. But questions that seek clarification of a candidate's past are fair.
Yet Republicans have decided that attacking the media makes good optics. Not only is the party considering overhauling the debate process, it has suspended an upcoming NBC debate because, according to the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, "CNBC's moderators engaged in a series of 'gotcha' questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates." But gotcha questions aren't the Republicans' problem. A frustration among Republican voters with political professionalism and a hodgepodge of fatally flawed candidates is. The more traditional portion of the Republican field is littered with candidates with strong résumés — I use the word strong here loosely, to mean the existence of governmental experience, not the quality of it — but relatively weak rhetorical skills.
Of the nontraditional lot, there is a former neurosurgeon whose strategy seems to be to appear barely awake while delivering word salads of outlandishness in a murmur, a real estate mogul full of bluster and bawdiness, and a fired CEO engaged in a breathtaking example of pink-slip revisionism.
Marco Rubio is thought to have won the last debate, not so much because he brilliantly articulated reasonable, or intellectually invigorating, policy -- "I'm against anything that's bad for my mother" is a kindergarten truism, not a nuanced policy position -- but because he remained relatively even and unperturbed.
And yet, it's Carson who is now the front-runner, one of the candidates who spoke the least during the last debate and who seemed to want to say nothing at all. And that candidate is the one worrying about the precious few questions he will have to answer. That is the elephant party's problem: They're betting on someone who's using ostrich logic.