Reporter: In defense of the gotcha question

Somebody had to defend the much-despised "gotcha" question. 

Ron Fournier, veteran reporter, digs into the legend and finds all kinds of juicy examples. Writes it up with great depth and precision. 

For example, where did the phrase "gotcha" come from? Fournier agrees with another reporter, and suggests that Bill Clinton might have introduced it into the political conversation. 

In a brief history of the gotcha question, Washington Post reporter Colby Itkowitz recalls that Bill Clinton called queries about his fidelity "a game of gotcha." Obama dismissed as "gotcha games" the controversy over comments about Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion. Bush griped about "gotcha" questions when reporters asked about whether he'd used cocaine. Sarah Palin dismissed any question she fumbled as "a gotcha."

Clinton objected because it wasn't a policy question, but Fournier argues that even if it's not a question about policy, it's fair to test political leaders on simpler grounds. Do they have any common sense?

Years ago, an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton walked into the state Capitol media room at the end of a hectic legislative session and asked the journalists if we needed anything else from him.  We had asked Clinton questions all day. We were tired. We wanted him to shut up and go home.

So I said, "Yes, governor. I know you don't know much about baseball, but when there's a pop-up behind the third baseman, whose ball is it?" The other reporters snickered. Finally, they figured: a gotcha question Clinton wouldn't answer.

The governor bit his lower lip, lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and mulled. "Never played the game much," he finally replied, "but wouldn't the shortstop have the best angle on the ball?"

That innocuous exchange has stuck with me for nearly 30 years because it revealed much about Clinton as governor. He was ultra-accessible, intellectually fearless, and—more often than I liked to admit it—right.

An example: Another example: Fournier asked G.W. Bush at a big press conference with Vladimir Putin present if the Russian leader could be trusted — a throw-away, "gotcha" question, in a press conference with Bush and Putin both taking questions. 

I asked Bush the first question at a news conference in Slovenia with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Is this a man that Americans can trust?" My editor and I had scripted a meatier two-part question about the U.S.-Russia relationship. This was a throwaway line, appended hastily to the end of the substantial stuff.

"Yes," Bush replied, before allowing Putin to answer a separate question. A few minutes later, the American president elaborated: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Bush told his staff later that I had caught him off guard. I had put him on the spot. Not wanting to openly question Putin's credibility, Bush nervously riffed his way into a quote that still reflects the tendency of U.S. officials to underestimate the Russian leader.

Asking good questions in pressurized situations means asking short questions that demand good answers. These are all good examples of short questions that open big topics.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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