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Let’s Say Jay Carney Got Asked a Hypothetical Question . . .

by Keith Koffler on April 3, 2013, 6:24 pm

Here’s a testy little exchange from the “gaggle” today aboard Air Force One en route to Denver, where President Obama is staging a gun control event and then traveling to San Francisco this evening for two fundraisers.

Our protagonists are Hans Nichols of Bloomberg and Jay Carney of The White House. It appears Hans asks the initial question, but that’s not completely clear.

Q   Jay, on Keystone pipeline. One of his hosts today at the fundraiser in San Francisco is an active opponent of the Keystone pipeline — Tom Steyer. There are also going to be protests planned outside the Getty mansion tonight. I guess I’ll try a third time on the Arkansas spill: Have you had a chance to talk to the President about that spill? And how does it affect — how does the Utah spill affect his thinking on the Keystone pipeline, and what would he tell his hosts today if that issue comes up?

MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to preview hypothetical answers to hypothetical questions. What I will say is that there are procedures in place –

Q   The answers wouldn’t be hypothetical, the questions would be. The answers would be answers to the hypothetical.

MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the whole thing would be hypothetical, Hans, but thank you for your –

Q   I’m just clarifying.

MR. CARNEY: I think you’re muddying, actually, but thanks.

Q   No, you hide behind this hypothetical thing all the time.

MR. CARNEY: He asked me, if he’s asked, what would he say?

Q   Right, but what he’d say would be his answer. The “if” is the hypothetical.

MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, the question hasn’t been asked. He’s not here to give the answer to the hypothetical.

Q — to the question is the hypothetical.

MR. CARNEY: Thank you for your assistance in the briefing, Hans.

Well. Hans is on the right track here. Carney, like every press secretary before him, loves to refuse to answer a question because it is “hypothetical.” Unless, of course, they like the question. It’s frustrating, and Hans wants real information and sounds like his patience is wearing thin.

Nevertheless, any good White House reporter – and Hans is one of them – should know a press secretary doesn’t take “hypotheticals,” and so the question, whoever asked it, was inartfully phrased. You never ask a press secretary – or any political type from whom you want an answer – what they’ll do or say “if” something happens. It gives them an easy out.

The art of questioning – not an art, really but a skill at best – calls for being as precise and focused as possible.

For example:

BAD QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, how long will it take you to pass this legislation if you decide to seek a vote?

ANSWER: “We’ll see.”

or

GOOD QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, are you going to pass this legislation within two weeks?

ANSWER: I don’t know if it can be done within two weeks.

FOLLOW UP: Three? By Memorial Day?

ANSWER: Yes, I think by Memorial Day.

And then you have a story: Speaker believes he can pass bill by Memorial Day.

When you’re specific and don’t suggest something might not happen, you give people a frame of reference – in this case two or three weeks – they feel they must deal with. And NEVER, as was done above in the first question to Carney, include more than one question within one. It allows the subject to choose one, and if he answers more than one, to be excused for responding briefly and evasively – after all, he’s been asked so many questions!

Here, Hans does succeed in getting under Carney’s skin – “I think you’re muddying, but thanks” – which is a mistake by Carney. He should just chuckle and let the whole thing get diverted into whether the answers are “hypothetical.” It would make him seem forgivable for “playing the game” and not answering questions.

And anyway, Carney is right in this instance. What Obama would say in answer to a hypothetical question must, ipso facto, also be hypothetical, since as Carney notes, the whole situation is hypothetical. It’s not even clear that Obama would have anything to say at this point on the Keystone pipeline.

And that, friends, is your journalism school lesson for the day. Class dismissed. Talking back to the teacher and verbal spitballs are allowed as always in the comments section.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Langley Spook April 3, 2013 at 6:34 pm

I want to go back to college to take a “Journalism” course for fun.
I think it would be fun to be kicked out of class when I get into a ‘discussion’ about the “bias” of todays so-called “reporters” & “journalists”.
I also want to see why no “reporters” or “journalists”, from the local to national level, know how to research or report a story nowadays.

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Sadie April 3, 2013 at 6:51 pm

I tried that in the early 1970′s. They were short on answers and long on tempers then.

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Sadie April 3, 2013 at 6:44 pm

What happens when Dan Pfeiffer is asked if the President’s budget will balance…click below for 1 minute of “Dancing with Words”.

http://weaselzippers.us/2013/04/03/white-house-senior-

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Rod April 3, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Perhaps Carney would be interested in answering a question about what our effeminate president would do if North Korea launched a weapon targeting a US city? Or, maybe our girly-man president is just too busy organizing and dividing one group of American citizens against another to get to actual crisis (and, no, I’m not talking about the crisis of “global climate change”).

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DeniseVB April 3, 2013 at 7:20 pm

That was the first hypothetical question that came to my mind too !

As the headlines rage with “threats” Obama’s off diddling with his donors. He should be in his situation room with his military leaders discussing “Wonder if…..”.

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Rod April 3, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Unfortunately, I think Obama is as allergic to that situation room as he is to work in general. I wondering IF there is an attack if he will:

1 – defer to others for decision that he should make or engage is his characteristic dithering
2 – go back to sleep
3 – blame “the process” for failure to adequately address the situation
4 – hide behind the skirt of some woman who actually has some stones

like he did before. There’s another hypothetical question you won’t get an answer to and, if history is any guide, you won’t get much of an answer after the fact, either.

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Playrighter April 3, 2013 at 8:37 pm

What did Biden say, a “spine of steel”? Possibly Joe meant to say a “spine of still, still waiting, still leading from behind, still evolving, still hoping for change…

Sadly, the reality with hypothetical questions is that they are sometimes the only ones you can ask without being called a racist.

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srdem65 April 3, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Carney the Magician proves once again his skill at sawing someone in half without killing them, while making an elephant disappear at the same time.

If the protocols and procedures of the gaggle are more casual and less pompous than the televised press briefings, then Carney the Magician could have just answered the question, hypothetical or not, with a “I don’t know” or whatever was appropriate instead of a rude and condescending retort to a legitimate query.
Why? Not just because it’s his job to answer questions, but because the American people want to know the answer , too.

We want answers to a lot of thing. A lot of issues that are important to all of us are just never asked or allowed to be swept under the rug.

Right now, we want to know what our President is doing heading out to party when a nuclear-powered foriegn nation is threatening our safety with armageddon. What does it mean that war ships and missiles are sent to the Asian seas.
The good people of Austin Texas are frightened by being singled out for a nuclear attack by the NoKos and they deserve an assurance from the President that he is doing all he can to prevent such a thing.

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Susan April 3, 2013 at 9:07 pm

He can’t be seen as making any kind of governing decisions, srdem. Making decisions means taking responsibility for your actions. Not to worry though. The national news is reporting that he is giving up 5% of his salary in solidarity with us little people. Never mind that the measly $20K is a pittance of what the taxpayers forked over for his kids spring break fling, but it’s the gesture that counts. Preezy Revenge may say something about that “kewpie doll with a bad haircut” (great description) when and if he takes out Austin.

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Langley Spook April 4, 2013 at 6:54 am

The NoKos can have Austin, TX. (re: liberal cesspool)

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DeniseVB April 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Great read, lest we forget, Obama, The Hypothetical President. Maybe Jay should be asked about it :D From May 2012……

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2012/05/02/the_hypothetical_president_114020.html

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Playrighter April 3, 2013 at 8:42 pm

And Obama might also heed the words of Paul Krugman:

“If you hear that ‘everyone’ supports a policy, whether it’s a war of
choice or fiscal austerity, you should ask whether ‘everyone’ has been
defined to exclude anyone expressing a different opinion.”

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