The other day I saw something that got me to thinking about “gotcha journalism.” I’ll summarize the definition as I understand it, and I did a few searches that confirm this general sentiment. This is the traditional definition of the term. The idea is that you interview someone and ask a question that you know the answer to, often having proof of that answer. The interviewer baits the interviewee into answering the question with a falsehood to avoid something embarrassing. The interviewer, presupposing that this will happen, waits with proof to discredit the response. It exposes the interviewee as a liar and in a poor light. The practice started in the 80’s and was perfected in the 90’s.
The True Use
The best example would be asking Bill Clinton if he had sex with Monica Lewinsky. As soon as he says “no” he sets himself up for failure. This is a classic scenario and only someone with a supreme ego would think they could get away with it when there is sure to be evidence. Better to avoid or duck the question. The problem is especially acute with a yes or no question. There is evidence. Questions about something one has said when there are recordings are particularly challenging (e.g. Nixon’s tapes).
Recently, the term has been used incorrectly and turned into a ‘get out of jail free’ card to not answer a fair question. Asking about your opinion is not a gotcha question to excuse not answering it, like Scott Walker tried in 2015. It’s also not a gotcha question to avoid a question you don’t like or know, like Sarah Palin tried in 2008 with Katie Couric.
If you have already said something and then are asked about it, by definition that can’t be a ‘gotcha’ question. The interviewer is asking for clarification, in general, that is what journalists are supposed to do. It is impossible to set a trap because all the evidence already exists in the public sphere.
The other day, the president took this to a whole new level of misuse of the term. He said to Hannity on FoxNews,
I think that a lot of things are being said that are more, I don’t think certain things will materialize, a lot of equipment is being asked for but I don’t think they’ll need.
The following day, Yamiche Alcindor asked,
…you’ve said repeatedly that you think that some of the equipment that governors are requesting they don’t actually need. You said New York might not need 30,000-
To which Trump cut her off and replied, “I didn’t say that.” And added later “Get you, get you, and you know what? That’s why nobody trusts the media anymore.”
This is not gotcha journalism. Asking to clarify something you said, is exactly why we trust journalists to do their job and do it well. Hannity should have asked it (if he was a journalist). I for one, wanted more clarity on this one. Being too scared to answer a question about something you already said, doesn’t give you the right to avoid the question and label it as something it is not. The funny thing is that if it actually was a ‘gotcha’ moment, then Alcindor would have (and Trump would know existed) some bit of evidence that proves he was lying or did something unfavorable to his reputation. Now I know, he is too stupid to realize that by using that euphemism, he actually is pointing out that he said something that if he elaborates now, makes him a liar. But that’s no surprise.
Trump’s perpetual misuse of words does a disservice to the country, our language and his supporters. The job of president is to provide leadership (I’ll leave this failure for another time) and then communicate clearly to get the country behind an effort…like Covid19. Not taking questions, labeling them as something they aren’t, is bad communication.
Take the term “Fake News” which is a great example of his perversion. Regardless of who was creating this crap and then sharing it through social channels, a “Fake News” story is literally a made up and false account of something that happened. Harsh, critical or unflattering news, is not “Fake.” Labeling it as fake is a shorthand cheat to allow your supporters to blindly ignore it, but that doesn’t mean it should be excused from examination. Somehow we let this linguistically challenged dotard to alter the English language, bigly.
This last one came up the other day. And at first, it suckered me in too. A friend shared this link from a right-leaning ‘news’ site.
As I read the article, I thought it might be click-bait and not the real story. But sure enough, it was. And I started to get mad. Come on Cuomo, are you really that dumb that you are publicly asking for something you aren’t even using? You are asking for something you don’t need?
And then I read some other commentary and the critical context-creating 2 missing words made this whole true story, into some new kind of gotcha journalism. “Right Now.” You see, NY is ok on ventilators “right now”, but they know the peak is coming in 2 weeks, so they need to gear up for that effort. This is how you prepare, this is leadership. If the moment comes and you are short ventilators and someone dies because equipment is not in your warehouse; You Failed. I am glad that Cuomo is having the foresight to get his inventory – his logistics – in place before it is needed.
If a platoon sergeant is told the troops are shipping out for a mission in 2 weeks, do you REALLY think he/she isn’t immediately filling out requisition forms for ammunition, transportation, night vision, terrain appropriate rigging, etc? We all know that you go to battle with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had. But it is the job of the Army to put itself in the best position to win the battle. It is leadership’s job to make sure they have the resources to get that job done when the time comes. You prepare early. You check and double check. Two is one, one is none.
Cuomo doesn’t want to trust that he is going to be late in attaining supplies when there are shortages, so he is getting that equipment RIGHT NOW. That is not a one-time event. It will take multiple shipments and requests to pull it all together, especially when he is competing with other states, as we are woefully low on inventory and the federal government is doing nothing to assist a 50 state uncoordinated effort. Cuomo is doing it right, starting early. Yes he is sitting on equipment for a few days waiting to use it. That is not a story. That would be like reporting that a soldier had extra magazines full of ammunition that he doesn’t need to fire right now. Is that really a gotcha moment?
I’d rather that soldier return home with unused ammo, alive. I’d rather some ventilators sit in storage and NYC citizens of the United States still be alive. I wish the president would focus on what really needs to be done to solve this crisis rather than how many ventilators the troops need to fight this war. If you want to challenge the request from Cuomo on a call, fine. If he has a model that backs it up, shut up and get off the podium and back up your troops. Trust the soldiers that are in the fight.