When A Question Isn't A Question

Yesterday, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a joint news conference. Check out the following question, which was asked of Bush by a British reporter.

"Mr. President, the Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as grave and deteriorating. You said that the increase in attacks is unsettling. That will convince many people that you're still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq and question your sincerity about changing course."

That's not really a question, is it? But Bush, visibly annoyed, replied anyway: "It's bad in Iraq. That help?"

I mention the question because it's not the type you're likely to hear asked by an American reporter. The U.S. press corps tends to be more polite in their questioning than their British counterparts. Some people, many of them liberals who believe the press corps to be too docile, lament this fact. I am not one of them. There is something to be said for confrontation, and a press corps that doesn't ask hard questions does the public a disservice. But there is a difference between asking a hard question in a polite way – perhaps with a polite but firm follow up or two – and offering up a petulant statement like the one above, which amounted to "why don't you just admit you're an insincere liar who doesn't see reality, huh, Bushie?"

The issue at the heart of the British journalist's "question," whether or not Bush understands the gravity of the situation in Iraq, is a valid one, especially as the military has been systematically underreporting the violence. But just as a good reporter has to ask the right questions, he has to ask them in the right way. And by making what amounted to a little speech, the reporter shifted the spotlight to himself and elicited nothing more than a testy dismissal from the president.

On the plus side, the reporter presumably won't lose his job over his bit of grandstanding. Contrast that with what happened in the Santo Domingo this week, where a Dominican journalist was fired after asking a question to Cardinal Nicolas Lopez Rodriguez that was deemed "insolent." Adolfo Salomón asked the cardinal to comment on the issue of homosexuals in the Church, which prompted Armed Forces minister Ramon Aquino to send a letter to the executives of Salomón's television station in protest. Salomón was soon fired. (Aquino said later he had been expecting the reporter to be reprimanded, not fired.) "Just as the authorities respect the journalists, I believe that the journalists, at least in a solemn act, must also respect the authorities," Aquino said.

Despite the fact that I disapprove of the British reporter's choice of question, I'm extremely thankful that he could ask it without worrying about being fired for touching on subject matter that some Armed Forces minister decided lacked the appropriate level of "respect." The press corps in the U.S. and Britain operates more or less independently from the government, and that gives reporters the power to ask the questions that need to be asked in a functioning democracy. Do they sometimes wield that power poorly? Yes, as we saw at yesterday's press conference. But at least they can come in to work the next day and try to do better.