John Leo

Mr. Answer Man, I have a question about the White House press corps. After waiting months to question President Bush at a full-dress press conference, why did these reporters get up one after another and ask the same question? I am referring to all the questions last Tuesday calling on President Bush to say that he has screwed up in Iraq.

Answer: You exaggerate. Yes, there was a mandatory quagmire question -- I think we all look forward to that one every time. The ?Don?t you want to apologize?? question was new -- a modern classic, and thanks to Oprah and Richard Clarke for that. The other inquiries weren?t so similar. They were differently nuanced. We had two ?Haven?t you failed as a communicator?? queries, two ?Admit your mistakes? inquiries, and four or five ?Didn?t you screw up?? questions, including three ?Weren?t you responsible for 9/11?? questions. To me, this is just normal news gathering. I suppose you think it was pointlessly repetitive badgering.

Q: Oh, yes. Why don?t reporters ask different questions instead of rephrasing the same one over and over? I know the reporters couldn?t ask about the economy, because that?s going pretty well. But what about indications that India, Russia, and even France are getting nervous about what a terrorist win in Iraq would mean for world­wide jihad. Why not ask him about Kerry or whether he sees signs of life at the U.N.? Why the fixation with ?You screwed up? questions?

A: One explanation, perhaps harsh, is that most questions at televised news conferences are actually the opinions of the reporters, lightly garnished, with a question mark placed at the end to imply objectivity. Thus ?I think you screwed up? becomes the more palatable and totally professional, ?Sir, didn?t you screw up?? There are many variations on the basic screw-up question. The ?apology? query is surely a promising growth area here. I think we?re going to see a rich flourishing of apology questioning. The journalism schools are probably working on it right now.

Q: Let me ask something nuanced and slightly different: Why do these reporters ask the same badgering question over and over? Is it because they think a lot of viewers tuned in late and simply don?t know what the previous badgering question was?

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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