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Political Animal

The Wrong Questions

By Brian Morton | Posted 4/23/2008

Back in 1990 or'91, I recall interviewing Maryland Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg by telephone, as part of my job as a radio reporter on WBAL-AM. The purpose of the interview was to get an answer to one question: After Steinberg had signed onto a tax proposal that Gov. William Donald Schaefer didn't like, and Schaefer had responded with typical pique by stripping Steinberg of all his staff except for a lone driver, did the lieutenant governor feel like his effectiveness in the administration was ended. For the purposes of radio and general information, a simple "yes" or "no" would not have been helpful. But such an answer would have been something, and it would have answered the question.

I remember vividly Steinberg ducking the question. Then again. And again, each time responding with a long and wordy answer where he couldn't exactly say what he brought to the table any more since Schaefer swept him into a closet. As I asked variants on the question, time ticked by on the little LED timer on the big Ampex reel-to-reel tape machine. My back faced the open office door of Mark Miller, WBAL Radio's rock 'n' roll Parrothead news director.

Miller's door was nearly always open, the better to participate in newsroom banter or to sniff out who might come back from lunch with Old Bay seasoning on them, in order to grill them on the price and quality of the seafood they had eaten. As the numbers on the red timer approached the 45-minute mark--45 minutes of ducking the question!--Miller came out, stood beside me (he could hear Steinberg's answers on the audio monitor), and, with a grin on his face, began miming a soft-shoe tap dance.

Seventeen years later, I can't say whether or not it served a journalistic purpose to grill the lieutenant governor for three quarters of an hour on whether he could do his job with just a desk, a phone, and a driver. Given how much attention is paid to the job in the Maryland Constitution, that might be all it is warranted. But since the man was drawing a state salary (and a fairly hefty one at that), I think the question was justified.

I've been committing acts of journalism professionally, on and off, for a cumulative 14 years, with various sabbaticals in government or public-interest lobbying, so I think I've got the credentials to say that when George Stephanopoulos asks Barack Obama about wearing an American flag pin on his lapel, and then considers his questions "tough, fair, relevant, and appropriate," he is unequivocally full of shit.

Not that we need to go through it again (although apparently some ABC News weekend interview shows do), but the economy is teetering toward recession, more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in an unnecessary war, thousands if not millions may lose their homes in a barely regulated mortgage environment, a major American city still lies in ruins, and the current leaders of the United States have virtually overridden several articles of the Bill of Rights, sanctioned torture, and violated the Geneva Conventions.

But it is of dire importance, stemming from some undefinable concept of "electability," that we must know why the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination does not wear a cloisonné replica of the flag on his lapel. "Electability" and "character" are what hack pseudo theater critics masquerading as journalists use as metrics when judging what a candidate should be. This is because the sole arbiters of these characteristics are the hacks themselves, thus cutting you, the actual voter, out of the equation.

I will never understand why, in a Democratic contest, network journalists ask questions from Republican operators/activists. It would make no sense in a Republican primary to ask, say, me for advice about what the candidate needs to do. It shows no insight into the GOP mind, nor would it tell you what the pitfalls are among the GOP electorate. It does allow the opposing party to frame every issue in ways detrimental to the candidate.

Stephanopoulos, once a formidable political operative himself before he jumped ship to become an alleged journalist, should know better than this. That's why it's galling to hear Sean Hannity of Fox News--someone so partisan that all of his publicity shots on the walls at the cable network are probably hung with a visible list to starboard--was bragging that he provided Stephanopoulos with talking points before the debate.

Finally, the interminable Pennsylvania primary is over, and with any luck, if there are to be any more debates (and who could blame the Obama campaign if there weren't?), perhaps the moderator(s) will look at the polls their own news organizations commission for questions to ask.

But hearing Stephanopoulos rationalizing inane nonpolicy questions after an embarrassment of a debate like that makes me think, Even if I waltzed with Mickey Steinberg for 45 minutes over whether or not he is relevant, at least I knew that something about it mattered. The ABC "news"-man, despite his top-tier network paycheck, has yet to figure that out.

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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