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Political Animal

Unanswered Questions

By Brian Morton | Posted 3/12/2008

Is John McCain too old to be president? Is America ready to have a former POW who has since voted in favor of torture as its chief executive? Is someone with McCain's legendary temper stable enough to be commander in chief, with his finger on the button of the world's largest nuclear arsenal?

(Shhh--I'm on a roll. This is called "concern trolling.")

Is Barack Obama too liberal to be president? Is America ready for a black president? Is Michelle Obama really patriotic enough to be first lady?

(If you haven't guessed by now, "concern trolling" is the practice of asking ostensibly earnest questions, usually by partisans masquerading as someone "concerned" about an issue, usually about the other party. It's also a tactic practiced quite often by the mainstream media.)

"There are people--they say this about Bill Clinton--he might be the Antichrist. Odds that Barack Obama is the Antichrist?" is a question recently asked on television by veteran concern troller and CNN host Glenn Beck. You'll notice something about questions like this: There really are no answers for them.

The only way to find out if America is "ready" for something is for it to actually happen. Asking leading questions, however, not only accomplishes nothing but also makes for a ready way to spread themes and tropes about candidates, usually negative ones, without ever having to own up to smears. This is why it's a favorite tactic of Fox News. Rupert Murdoch's political propaganda channel often uses these "questions of the day" to telegraph Republican talking points into the mainstream, with the barely plausible deniability that it is simply "asking questions."

As we've mentioned before in this column, MSNBC's Chris Matthews loves to beat up Bill and Hillary Clinton with unanswerable questions, and most often not even to their faces. After McCain watched the Super Bowl in a Boston hotel bar, Matthews asked a correspondent, "Now, we don't ask if that's fake, do we? We ask if Hillary's crying for real. But we don't say, `Hey, wait a minute. He went in the bar? Wasn't he a little tired? Wouldn't he have rather gone to bed?'"

You'll forgive me if I don't buy Matthews' "concern." Usually when ostensible journalists in the mainstream media get caught asking unanswerable questions that are way out of bounds, or so off-base that it becomes clear that they have a personal agenda, their very first response is that they "are just making a joke." The "making a joke" or "tongue in cheek" defense is almost as predictable as politicians claiming that their words were taken out of context--it's the first line of defense (and usually the only one).

The results of the most recent Harris Interactive poll show that more than half of Americans don't trust the press. Among radio, the internet, and TV, the tube takes the worst beating, with only 36 percent of those polled finding it trustworthy. Could it be because of tactics like concern trolling?

Oops--there I go again, asking questions that can't readily be answered. You see, part of the problem with TV news is that there is so much time to fill but only so much real news. So producers fill the rest of the airtime with bloviators who add little to the actual discourse (usually under the rubric of "analysis"), and this is easily accomplished by asking questions.

When partisans get on TV, and they want to make points about an opposing campaign, one of the favored tricks is to say that something "raises questions," usually about some abstract quality about the opponent such as their judgment, temperament, or patriotism. Not only then are the questions unanswerable but the thing being questioned is unquantifiable--who is to say how patriotic one must be? Are you patriotic enough?

Next time you watch the political coverage from Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, count how many unanswerable questions are asked about a candidate--any candidate. It doesn't matter if it's McCain, Clinton, or Obama--put yourself in their shoes and turn the question on yourself. Are you patriotic enough? Do you have the right temperament? Suppose somebody asked someone else if you were the Antichrist? It's not like that person could definitively say one way or another--how could she know the answer?

When you examine concern trolling closely enough, you start to see how ludicrous the practice is, but that's the lovely thing about the transitory nature of broadcast news: There's so much of it, and it goes by so fast, you don't really think about it. And the questions, and the subtle slams and smears that are behind them, become part of the process of how we elect our politicians. This turns elections that should be about issues into drama criticism and popularity contests.

Those things may be great if someone is running for homecoming queen or the lead of the high-school play, but at the top level of government, it's kind of silly, isn't it? That's a simple question that shouldn't be too hard to answer.

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Political Animal archives

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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