The Media, Gotcha Questions and Tacos

English: Sarah Palin speaking at a rally in El...

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It has long been a common practice on the right to accuse the media of having a liberal bias. Sarah Palin added a new spin on this approach by popularizing the notion of the “gotcha” question. As might be imagined, politicians continue to avail themselves of the notion that the media is out to get them.

In some cases the media does act in ways that seem to indicate that certain folks are out to get politicians. For example, CNN’s John King started off a presidential debate by asking Newt about what his second wife had said about his alleged request for an open marriage. While Newt handed King his rump on a platter, Newt also launched into an attack on the media.

On the one hand, Newt made some legitimate criticisms about how the media folks tend to bring up matters that are salacious yet lacking in actual merit as news stories. In the case of Newt, his character is relevant. However, as Newt points out, the story of his infidelity is old news and bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for. This does, as one might imagine, raise some interesting questions about media ethics in regards to the timing of stories as well as the focus the media folks place on certain stories.

On the other hand, the media did not make up the story-Newt did, in fact, behave in ways contrary to his own currently espoused morality. Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background. For politicians to complain that the media folks are reporting what they do and say is comparable to Meletus’ anger at Socrates for making evident his failings. The misdeed lies not with the person who reveals the misdeed but with the person who commits it.

More recently, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. was asked by the press about the alleged harassment of Hispanics by members of the town’s police force. In reply to a very straightforward question about what he would do about the situation, he said he   “might have tacos.” As might be imagined, this did not go over very well.

While he did say he took responsibility for his actions, he also blamed the media and accused the reporter of asking a “gotcha” question. However, the question hardly appears to be anything that would legitimately count as a “gotcha” question in that it is not loaded, overly complicated, confusing, or otherwise trap-like in content. Also, the media folks presented his claim in full context. If they had, for example, asked him what he would have for dinner and then edited that in as his reply, then he could justly accuse the media of being unfair. However, he was asked a straightforward question and his reply was presented in context. As such, the only one he has to blame for his words is himself. Perhaps the biggest gripe that politicians have with the media folks is that they so often make public what politicians actually say and do (“how dare they report what I said!”). That, however, does not seem to be anything unfair or unjust on the part of the media. Rather, that seems to be their job.

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  1. “bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for”

    Well, if it were not the case that republicans make so much of their moral views and try to plug God into every aspect of what should be secular debate (i.e. about governing, not religion) then that may be a fair point. Newt’s response seems like a pre-planned counter that his team have made, to go on the offensive at the first mention any personal indiscretion.

  2. Ron,

    Quite right. King should have made that sort of reply, namely that given that Newt is claiming to be righteous then it follows that concerns about that alleged selling point should be fair game.

  3. There is such a thing as a “gotcha” question – Jeremy Paxman is a fan of them. I see them as questions that are intended to provoke suspicious discomfort from the interviewee without actually revealing anything of consequence. For example, they might be asked to expound upon something they shouldn’t be expected to know in the first place, or to offer a simple answer when that isn’t possible. They’ll be flustered, and people will like that because everybody loves to see a figure of authority discomfited, but for no good reason.

    This, of course, is different from Palin’s idea of a “gotcha” question because whether or not somebody possesses basic knowledge of their nation’s history or world affairs is pretty damn significant.

  4. I think media take a vital part in increasing popularity.

  5. You say: “Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background.”

    I don’t know why you say this. It doesn’t seem to be intuitively obvious or analytically true, or anything of the sort. If it’s meant to be an empirical claim, surely it is simply false. In my experience, many decent people nonetheless have so-called “sordid” tales in their background – i.e. at some stage in their lives they have had sexual escapades that don’t fit conventional mores, or they have done something else that doesn’t fit the conventional mores and might be regarded as “sordid”.

    Gingrich seems to have been very callous towards his first two wives, but that’s a different thing from merely proposing an open marriage or whatever he did.

    If you said that decent people haven’t usually done very callous things, I’d be happier with it. But suggesting they don’t have actions in their pasts that would be regarded by many as “sordid” … well, no. I think that’s often just plain false and that the prospect of having private matters in your past raked over by the media could well be a deterrent for many people.

    Fortunately, the public doesn’t seem to have much regard for the media when it gratuitously digs up sordid tales about individuals.

    I actually find it bizarre the way the media in the US delve so much into this stuff.

  6. Russell, I grant that much media digging is a gratuitous search for juicy material. But they should be prepared to have their morals questioned. Personally I don’t have a problem with politicians not being perfect. But they might help their case if they were open about their mistakes and willing to talk about them. If they are prepared to cover up their inconvenient private lives, how much covering of of official inconveniences would they be prepared to carry out? I wouldn’t trust Newt, not because he has had several marriages that have failed, but because I suspect if he made mistakes he’d be prepared to hide them, and at the same time be self-righteous about any indiscretion of his opponents. Our politicians and our media are as flawed as the rest of us. There’s no room for blaming the media. Openness is to be strived for, and the press should insist on it – though it would be nice if press dignity matched the dignity they are criticising politicians for the lack of.

  7. Stupid Uncle Bob

    I think it displays a bias to declare that only one side of the political spectrum complains about press coverage. Admittedly you never declared you were neutral on the topic.

    That said I think the issue that many people, not just politicians, have with the media is the sense of bias. Speaking from a personal perspective, I can’t think of a “news” outlet that I trust.

    As for “gotcha” questions, I believe it is directly related to bias. And they come from both sides of political spectrum as well. If that makes sense.

    At the end of the day the media seems to be shifting towards political opinion and away from “news”. Choosing to believe/agree with the media is exactly that, a choice.

  8. Dennis Sceviour

    There is a saying in politics that one cannot get elected talking about issues. So, politicians talk about the elections like a football game commentary, or criticize their political opponents past history, or talk in long-winded platitudes; but never about issues. The press often ask questions related to the political opponents attacks, and feel justified in doing so in the absence of commitment on issues. What else could the press ask? The American Bill of Rights called for freedom of speech in Parliament and freedom of the press. Be thankful that they can ask any questions in America, for in some places the media are muzzled.

  9. Bob,

    The left in the US does complain about Fox. But they don’t seem to follow the model of blaming the media as much as the right.

    You are right-the media folks are often polarized (in the US Fox swings right while MSNBC swings left).

  10. Russell,

    Much hinges here on what it is to be decent. If decent folks can have sordid backgrounds and still be decent, then the revelations of these events should not impact their standing as decent folks. If these events do impact their standing as decent folks, then it would seem to follow that decent folks would not have such deeds in their past.

    An obvious reply would be that the folks did sordid things, but have sense repented, thus being decent now. If so, they could presumably use that to counter the charges against them.

    As you note, the “sordid” deeds might just be such that some folks might merely look down on them and they would be unjustly accused of being indecent. That would be a reasonable point of concern. However, Newt’s dismay seems to be that some media folks bring up his multiple infidelities and the open marriage thing when he is trying to run as a righteous Christian.

    Sordid delving seems to be a very Western thing to do. 🙂

  11. Ron,

    Good points. On the one hand, the media folks often seem to love finding and enhancing scandals. On the other hand, the media folks do have a legitimate role in finding facts about politicians.

  12. s. walllerstein (amos)


    Russell is right, as far as I know.

    Delving in the sex life of politicians seems a very U.S. type of thing.

    The media does not do that at all in Chile (where I live.)

    There seems to be a tacit agreement in the Chilean media that a politician’s sex life is her or her private affair.

  13. Dennis Sceviour

    @s. walllerstein,
    Do you mean tacit assumption rather than “tacit agreement”? There is a slight difference in meaning, which I would probably hardly have noticed except for the recent comments on truth, silence and lies.

  14. s. walllerstein (amos)


    You have a good eye and a good memory.

    There is probably both a tacit assumption and agreement in the media that a politician’s life is his or her own business.

    Michelle Bachelet, our first women president, had had, as is normal with contemporary women, several different serious relationships with different men and had two children, but although I follow the news with attention, I have no idea which relationship the children were from.

    Ricardo Lagos, president before Bachelet, was divorced, and his ex-wife hated him: that I know because the Pinochet dictatorship used his wife against him when Lagos was an opposition leader against the dictatorship.

    I have no idea whether Lagos’s wife’s grievances against him have a basis, because once democracy returned in 1990, no one in the media, not even Lagos’s political enemies (and he has enemies) brought up the subject of his failed marriage and his non-harmonious relationship with his ex-wife again.

    I’m sure that Chilean politicians have roughly the same amount of non-monogamous and non-hetereosexual conduct as any other human group, but from the media one has no idea and that is good, I believe.

  15. Dennis Sceviour

    @s. walllerstein ,
    American media does seem to treat scandal differently than in other countries. I am not sure if it is because of a unique interpretation of the American Bill of Rights, or because of the lifestyles of Hollywood actors and actresses.

    I will have to abstain from comment on Chilean politicians; I really know nothing about it. However, consider the recent treatment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. His exposes of details of the personal lives of diplomats has brought serious criticism from the international community, yet the details are less sordid than the National Enquirer type reporting found in America. Thus, I would say there is no tacit agreement on these matters. They are thoroughly discussed by media editors in advance.

  16. I think we picked up our media ways from our British cousins-though we get all uptight about nudity. Violence, however, is totally cool.

    I would agree that a person’s consensual sex life is his/her own business. However, there are aspects of sexual behavior that would be legitimate business for the voting public. Affairs, for example, on the part of candidates who preach moral purity and hammer others over the sanctity of marriage would be fair game for the media.

  17. I can understand how the contradiction of a candidate in favor of a specific type of morality in breaking said morality might be upsetting to some people, but that seems to be saying that it is only morally wrong for the candidate preaching the morality.

    It seems that it is only the contradiction that is wrong and not the immorality. If the candidate publicly states that she has no morals, is she then entitled to behave publicly anyway she chooses free from media and public scrutiny?

  18. s. wallerstein (amos)


    The U.S. media did not always pry into the sex lives of candidates or politicians: for example, no one revealed John Kennedy’s rather varied sex life until long after his death.

    And U.S. candidates did not always preach about sexual morality as they campaigned: a glance at the Nixon-Kennedy debates reveals no mention of sexual issues.

    Nixon played dirty politics (as did Kennedy), yet Nixon never said anything about Kennedy’s sex life, even though he must have had lots of secret information, given his position as vice president.

    It is interesting to see how the rules change.

  19. S.wallerstein,

    True-in the past, the media did not report on such things. As you note, things have changed. Part of it is a change in social norms (coverage of sex is now seen as acceptable) and part of it is the 24 hour commercial news cycle (viewers need to be drawn in to see advertising 24/7/365).

    The “classic” conservatives did tend to focus on issues other than sexual morality, but the shift to pander (or win over) to the fundamentalists and “values voters” has resulted in a new approach to politics.

    Since the voters and politicians have made sexual issues part of the political landscape, it seems that the media is within its legitimate rights to set up cameras in that brave new world.

  20. Bill,

    A candidate would not be entitled to a free ride by rejecting morality, but this would mean that s/he could not be accused of violating his/her ethical views.

    In the case of politicians who take on values issues and espouse a particular sexual morality it can be said that they have made these issues issues. As such, when the media folks join them in this area they can hardly complain about the media being interested in what they themselves have staked out as a matter for public attention.

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