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.
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.”
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.