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November 20th, 2017

Insight

Question: What's a Good Question?

Debra J. Saunders

By Debra J. Saunders

Published Jan. 9, 2017

Question: What's a Good Question?

What should reporters ask President-elect Donald Trump at his first post-election press conference scheduled for Jan. 11? The answer isn't as simple as it may seem. Trump has not held a formal news conference for six months. He postponed until January the news conference promised for December. He refers to the press on Twitter as "the dishonest media." Trump seems to enjoy sparring with the media more than responding to the media.

Richard Grenell, who served as U.S. spokesman at the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, believes the press shoulders its own special burden — having to "get their credibility back." He sees the 2016 vote as a repudiation of "the D.C. media circuit," which generally opposed Trump.

Former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno, author of the book, "Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change," agrees the public has come to see journalists "as partisans, as opposed to the chroniclers" of events. "There's a different kind of audience out there now," Sesno said, adding that reporters must be mindful of it.

Sesno advised journalists "to take the adjectives out of their questions." At news conferences, reporters shouldn't look like they're trying to make points, he said. That's no easy feat, as reporters also want to find answers to "some of these huge questions that go beyond the daily headline."

"I'm a big advocate that the press should focus on policy and not try to report on personality or let their agendas seep into their coverage," Grenell said. He favors reporters being very specific and avoiding a generic question.

I think a good question for Trump is: Is Russian President Vladimir Putin an ally? (It's not a gotcha question, but an honest attempt to decipher Trump's opinion of the Russian leader, apart from the hacking scandal.) Bad idea, Grenell responds. That question "can be interpreted to go 10,000 ways." For Trump, such queries can turn into a game, and Trump is "a master at messaging."

Bill Harlow, a former CIA spokesman and 15-seconds.com blogger, thinks it does not matter what reporters ask the president-elect. "He has mastered the art of answering what he wants to with little or no reference to the question," Harlow said.

Harlow also recommends asking very specific questions, like, "You said 'X' in 2010 and now you say 'Y' — why did you change?"

Some former White House staffers offered these questions on the condition they not be named. I throw them out because they are the sort of questions reporters easily could ask. None is neutral.

—Do you trust the U.S. Secret Service?

—Do you not trust the U.S. intelligence community? If you don't, who there is the problem?

—When was the last time you read the U.S. Constitution?

—Did any Russians provide you debt relief during your bankruptcies? If so, what were their names?

—What is the start and end construction date for the wall?

—Are you going to fly Air Force One?

Even if you find all of those questions sufficiently specific and lacking in attitude — for the record, I don't — there's another hurdle. As Sesno noted, it's tough. "You only get one question," he said.

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