The war against ‘gotcha’ debate questions is pointing the finger in the wrong direction

ted cruz giving a speech

Marc Nozell / flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton have stonewalled and attacked the press. But they aren’t to blame.

After last week’s CNBC Republican debate, the Internet declared the network the evening’s biggest loser—but the real loser may end up being the media itself. After a party-wide outcry over perceived moderator bias, the managers of 11 different Republican presidential campaigns—including Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)—met to demand greater control over the format and the rules of future debates. Among the stipulations issued by the campaigns are equal time for each candidate, a limit to two hours for the full debate, and equal room for opening and closing statements.

This is merely the latest offensive in the ongoing war between conservatives and the so-called “liberal media,” but the spat reflects an old tendency in both parties to reject tough questioning. It’s as evident in Ted Cruz’s viral-bait jab at CNBC (“this is why the American people don’t trust the media!”) during last week’s debate as it is in Hillary Clinton dodging questions about her private email server. The continued myth of the media-manufactured controversy—better known as a “gotcha” question—is the perfect strategy for any politician looking for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Blaming the media is nothing new, but the GOP’s latest strategy should make it clear politicians aren’t fighting the press as much as they’re fighting the truth.

The Republican campaign for control over the media speaks to the growing power of national debates in the social media era: Each of the last three GOP debates broke ratings records for their respective networks, and while Twitter activity noticeably declined from the 3.9 million tweets sent during the second debate—hosted by CNN—the CNBC debate still logged 1.8 million tweets. Given the size of that audience, the campaigns don’t want to take risks—like the challenging lines of questioning from CNBC about Medicare, Rubio’s voting record, and the seriousness of Trump’s platform. Rather than answering such questions, Cruz fired back, calling the debate “a cage match.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie joined in the media-bashing when he criticized a question to Jeb Bush about regulating fantasy football.

This isn’t a new strategy when dealing with the media or the growing power of the Internet in holding Washington accountable: Politicians have long scapegoated “gotcha” journalism for their own shortcomings. The Washington Post defines “gotcha” as “code for asking something that, no matter what the answer, is almost always going to produce a story.” Examples range from Bill Clinton using the phrase to dismiss questions about his infidelity in 1992 to Sarah Palin attempting to explain away her inability to name a newspaper. More recently, Donald Trump pointed the finger at “gotcha” journalism to justify his own lack of knowledge about key players in the Middle East.

These are not difficult questions: Did you cheat on your wife? What newspapers do you read? Who is the leader of Al-Qaeda? The same people promising to stand up to the bad guys of the world—from Vladmir Putin and China to ISIS—are shrinking in the face of inquiry—the kinds of questions anyone in their position should be able to answer. As PBS NewsHour‘s Domenico Montanaro wrote earlier this year, how politicians respond “can be revealing of their mindset, their depth, and their mettle as a candidate.” Thus, interrogating our candidates isn’t a matter of trying to trick them or make them look bad—it’s a function of good democracy.

The questions Cruz and Christie attacked were exactly the kinds of “substantive,” policy-oriented questions we say we want. Brian Beutler, the Senior Editor of the New Republic, collected each question asked by the moderators at the debate and found an impressive array of policy questions—including ”one question (and follow-up) about the Export-Import Bank, one equal-pay question, one question about equal rights, one question about Ben Carson’s business associates, two questions about H1-B visas, one question about the Federal Reserve, one question about federal subsidies,” and so on.

In response to those very questions, Ben Carson appealed for “a more professional-type debate,” but Carson appeared fine with the format of the second GOP debate. Hosted by CNN’s Jake Tapper, the contest was an unruly carousel of personal attacks, which saw Tapper prodding each candidate into facing off against another. After the CNN Republican debate, Donald Trump told reporters, “It was a beautiful time, I had an amazing time. … They were very professional, the way they handled it. CNN did a very good job.” Trump’s only complaint was about the length of the debate (meaning that his biggest problem was that there were too many questions).

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The GOP, thus, doesn’t want a taxing debate dense with detail and minutiae. What they want is a rotating lectern in which each candidate gets equal time to give their stump speech. Where candidates of the past might have talked around the question, the Republican campaigns are seizing upon this moment to protect themselves from answering at all. As CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla pointed out, Ted Cruz’s diatribe about the media was especially handy because it allowed him to avoid inquiry about a future Washington shutdown. Quintanilla said, “I just want the record to reflect that I asked you about the debt limit and I got no answer.”

This tactic is not limited to one party. During CNN’s first (and only) Democratic debate—hosted by Anderson Cooper—both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton dismissed questions about Clinton’s email server as a tiresome distraction from the real issues. Sanders famously quipped, “We’re sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” When former Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee tried to seize on the issue rail against Clinton, the former Secretary of State was asked if she’d like to respond—and simply said “no.” Despite apologizing for the controversy, her refusal to confront the issue—which is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation—during the debates is all too similar to the Republican response across the aisle.

But it’s not just that Hillary doesn’t like talking to journalists about her email server but that she doesn’t like talking to journalists at all—as Clinton has widely “stonewalled” the media during her campaign. Slate’s Josh Voorhees wrote back in May, “Since officially kicking off her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has answered somewhere between eight to 13 questions from reporters, depending on how generous we’re willing to be with our definition of the word answered.” The response from the press has been outright hostile, with an op-ed the Las Vegas Review Journal demanding to know: “If she can’t handle a tough question from a journalist, how can she handle the duties of the highest office in the land?”

But as Voorhees points out, if it’s a slippery campaign tactic, it’s also an intelligent one: Hillary and her GOP rivals can attack and ignore the press because Americans hate the press. According to a September Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans and only 27 percent of Republicans have any trust in the media to “do the right thing.” But the biggest question here is: Do we want them to? As politics increasingly becomes a horse race, many of Cruz and Clinton’s supporters aren’t looking for a debate that will trip their candidate up; they want to believe their pony can go all the way.

While tough questions might make candidates squirm, what enables them to get away with pointing the finger at “gotcha” journalism instead of their own preparedness is just as much their problem with the truth as it is our own.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via Marc Nozell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.