In your research project with John Heritage, you’re studying a sample of some 4,000 questions raised at presidential news conferences from 1953 to 2000 to see whether journalists have become more adversarial toward presidents over time. How do you quantify something like that?
C: We’ve developed a system for analyzing and coding the vigorousness of the questions that journalists ask. We decomposed “vigorousness” into four underlying dimensions, which we’re calling initiative, directness, assertiveness, and adversarialness. Each of those involves a number of specific indicators. For example, initiative looks at things like how frequently journalists ask follow-up questions. Directness has to do with the extent to which journalists are being blunt. If a journalist says, “Mr. President, would you care to tell us what you’ll be doing next week?”—that’s very different from asking simply, “Mr. President, what are your plans for next week?” It’s an extremely cautious way of asking a question; it licenses the possibility that the president may choose not to answer. That is how Dwight Eisenhower was often questioned. That way of framing a question has virtually disappeared from the modern world. With assertiveness, we’re looking at the extent to which the question is designed to favor or invite a particular answer. For example, if a journalist asks the president, “Are you going to run for reelection?”—that’s relatively neutral. Another way is to say: “Mr. President, many of your supporters are calling for you to run again. Are you going to run for reelection?” Obviously that question is pushing for a yes answer. Here’s another way: “Mr. President, aren’t you going to run for reelection?” It turns out that anytime you put a negative into the interrogative—“Don’t you think?” “Isn’t it true that . . . ?”—for some strange reason it heavily tilts the answer in favor of yes. So now we can code yes-no questions and ask whether they have linguistic features that tilt them one way or another. In that way, we’ve been able to chart the evolution of more assertive styles of questioning over time. With adversarialness, we’re interested in the extent to which the question contains information that either disagrees with the president or is somehow critical of him, or holds him accountable for his actions. For example, “Mr. President, why did you decide to do such and such?” That’s a mild accountability question. The more adversarial version is “Mr. President, how could you do X?” Obviously, it implies that there is no acceptable explanation. Dwight Eisenhower never got a question like that; that form was virtually nonexistent as a journalistic practice in the 1950s. It’s not common today, but it’s now part of the journalist’s repertoire.
So with these little bits of conduct, then, you can actually chart a decline in deference to the president over time and the rise of a more vigorous, aggressive way of dealing with public figures. You can also isolate the circumstantial factors that predict aggressiveness. Here’s a little factoid that we think holds up really well: In general, the questions are softer when they deal with foreign affairs or military affairs than when they deal with domestic affairs; the forms of aggressiveness I’ve described are less common. Presidents get a kind of buffer or shield against aggressive questioning if the questions deal with foreign affairs. And the magnitude of that shield—the gap between the foreign and domestic questions—has remained more or less constant over the last 50 years.
What accounts for that?
C: There’s an old expression: Politics stops at the water’s edge. When journalists are dealing with foreign affairs or the military, I think there’s a natural tendency for them to feel like they are asking questions not just as journalists but also as citizens, and that affects how they design the questions. There’s been a lot of commentary about the degree to which reporters were relatively deferential toward George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. I haven’t looked at this statistically, but certainly one thing that seems to have happened since 9/11 is that in news conferences, questions for the president have been disproportionately foreign and military related, and in general those questions tend to be easier. Another thing that has emerged is that the unemployment rate seems to be a strong predictor of aggressive questioning: When the unemployment rate is on the rise, the questions get tougher.
Have presidents become more evasive?
C: That’s a good question. We haven’t looked at that; our analysis is focusing pretty exclusively on the questions. The difficulty is coming up with a reliable system to measure evasiveness. It turns out that answers are much more complicated to study than questions are. Most of the work we’ve done on that subject has looked at the practices that interviewees use when they want to resist the agenda of a question in some way. The bottom line is, evading or resisting a question has certain costs. It can be a bit embarrassing to have the journalist say, “Mr. President, you didn’t answer my question.” If you look at how politicians sidestep questions, you can see them engaging in a range of practices designed to minimize these costs. One case study we looked at was from the 1988 vice presidential debate, when Dan Quayle was asked what he would do if he suddenly became president in an emergency. He had a very tough time answering. The first time he got the question, he shifted the agenda and tried to change it into a question about his general qualifications for the presidency. We call this operating on the question; in essence, the public figure reformulates the question before answering. You can get away with that sometimes, if you do it very subtly. But it’s a very risky practice, because in effect the interviewee is putting words in the mouth of the journalist. Quayle was asked the same question three times, and each time he tried to sidestep the issue—and he paid a price for it.
How do interviews typically close?
C: The conventions are pretty straightforward. There are some ways in which the interviewer begins to wind down the talk; they do something like thank the interviewee for taking part.
Well . . . do you have any questions for me?
C: How long have you been a journalist?
I guess 15, 20 years.
C: Do you like it?
I do. I have found that I’ve gravitated toward science writing, and I think actually much of that has to do with the interviewing process. Personalitywise, I’m not cut out to be a press-corps journalist, for the same reason that I’m not a stock trader on Wall Street.
C: You know, I always thought that journalism could have been a fallback career for me.
There’s still time.
C: Yeah, I know.
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