As a member of the media and a political reporter I expect criticism, but I don't always respond to it. When it is serious and measured criticism, I take it seriously and think about it a lot. It weighs on my mind. It makes me ponder how I can become a better journalist. I'd never claim to be right all the time. Here's a scoop: I even learn from my critics. They are good for journalism and a free press. But even when I vehemently disagree with the criticism, I still struggle about whether to defend myself and my work, or keep my thoughts to myself.
This weekend, the Springfield News-Leader's Associate Editorial Page Editor Brian Lewis targeted me (without using my name) in a piece about the questions I asked at a recent press conference with Alan Keyes and Rick Scarborough on embryonic stem cell research. Because this was done in such a public fashion, I felt I needed to respond. I also thought I'd use this opportunity to respond not only to Lewis, but to my countless critics in a broad way, who are viewers and bloggers.
Lewis began his piece with this lede: I hate news conferences when television personalities start hunting for soundbites.
First, I don't consider myself a TV personality. That's much too complimentary. I'm just a lowly reporter. But I do love my job. And yes, you caught me . . . I'm still fascinated by the power of television.
But the main argument Lewis makes in his editorial is that I wasn't asking relevant questions at a news conference in a church about embryonic stem cell research.
Lewis questions why I asked Keyes and Scarborough to define cloning. To me, that is a basic question every journalist should ask any person they are interviewing about stem cell research. In this high-charged debate, language is key. It defines the debate. What is human cloning? Cloning an embryo? Cloning a sheep? Cloning a human being? I believe it was imperative to ask them their definition. I just respectfully disagree with Lewis that I was "hunting for a soundbite."
Now, God knows I do love me some good sound! Television is a different medium than print. We have to get in, get out, all in 2 minutes. It's something I struggle with every night. So, yes, sometimes I look for a concise soundbite that makes it easier for people to understand. But I don't ask questions, especially political ones, for soundbites. I ask questions to better understand an argument, or pin a politician down on a position. If the response becomes a soundbite . . . even better! Again, to me, that is the essence of my job.
Lewis then takes me to task for asking the duo if it would be a sin to vote for amendment 2. Again, I believe that is a relevant question. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have called it "sinful and devilish." These are two moral leaders of our time. As they sit in a church talking about the issue of when life begins, how can that not be a relevant inquiry?
And I did ask it 3 times . . . at least. But that's what I usually do when a politician doesn't answer my question directly. I re-ask. And then ask it again. And then again. Sure, it may make me look obnoxious. But follow-ups are the most important parts of interviews. I think it is really important not to let your interview subjects dodge you. Maybe that's not a journalistic technique Lewis admires or respects.
In his writing, Lewis also seems to imply that I am being unfair to Keyes and Scarborough. That I am out to get some "religious folks . . . shouting some irrational hoodoo." I've heard that before. To be honest, I'm a little surprise that Lewis would level that charge. Anytime I go to a press conference and attempt to ask tough questions to one side or the other, someone screams "BIAS." It's tough, because sometimes during tough questioning, you may look like you don't agree with the person you are questioning. But that's just a interviewing technique. I mistakenly assumed Lewis was familiar with it. It's pretty basic devil's advocate questioning. It's almost like I am having an argument with you about the issue, but you don't know my opinion. Heck, I may even agree with the person I'm grilling or I may not have formed an opinion. Whichever it is, I always try to conduct my questioning in a respectful manner. Still, sometimes a reporter has to get a little rough or even rude to get an answer and gain respect.
But I hope people understand that I use the same technique on all sides. I try to be equally tough on Republicans and Democrats, and all other political species. Does it always come out exactly equal in fairness and toughness . . . I would hope so, but probably not. My work is certainly not always perceived fair by partisans and others who have strong opinions one way or another. But I try to make a commitment to be equally fair and equally tough. Then again, objectivity is in the eye of the beholder.
Just for full disclosure, here are some of the other questions (paraphrased) that I posed at the press conference and you can decide if it's "gotcha journalism," as Lewis alleges.
*Why should Missourians believe two out- of-state political and religious leaders over Missouri doctors like the state medical association who have signed on to embryonic stem cell research?
*When do you believe life begins?
*Why shouldn't this issue be settled by lawmakers? Isn't it their job? Didn't they pass the buck to voters because it's too politically complicated and touchy?
Even though I find his complaints baseless, I thank Lewis for sparking a heck of a debate. There is nothing more I like than a rich, passionate debate about big ideas, like embryonic stem cell research and journalism. That's why I like asking tough questions . . . to have a debate. Don't we serve our viewers and readers better that way?
Finally, in his piece, Lewis also asks about the brainstorming sessions in our newsroom. I would say we argue about these same exact issues all the time. Which issues to cover? What questions to ask? What to lead the newscast with? Why would our viewers care? We debate, we argue. Sometimes we even shout. So to answer Lewis, it's a pretty vibrant, thought-provoking environment . . . even for a bunch of TV personalities.