Our protagonists are Hans Nichols of Bloomberg and Jay Carney of The White House. It appears Hans asks the initial question, but thatâs not completely clear.
Q Jay, on Keystone pipeline. One of his hosts today at the fundraiser in San Francisco is an active opponent of the Keystone pipeline â Tom Steyer. There are also going to be protests planned outside the Getty mansion tonight. I guess Iâll try a third time on the Arkansas spill: Have you had a chance to talk to the President about that spill? And how does it affect â how does the Utah spill affect his thinking on the Keystone pipeline, and what would he tell his hosts today if that issue comes up?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Iâm not going to preview hypothetical answers to hypothetical questions. What I will say is that there are procedures in place â
Q The answers wouldnât be hypothetical, the questions would be. The answers would be answers to the hypothetical.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the whole thing would be hypothetical, Hans, but thank you for your â
Q Iâm just clarifying.
MR. CARNEY: I think youâre muddying, actually, but thanks.
Q No, you hide behind this hypothetical thing all the time.
MR. CARNEY: He asked me, if heâs asked, what would he say?
Q Right, but what heâd say would be his answer. The âifâ is the hypothetical.
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, the question hasnât been asked. Heâs not here to give the answer to the hypothetical.
Q â to the question is the hypothetical.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you for your assistance in the briefing, Hans.
Well. Hans is on the right track here. Carney, like every press secretary before him, loves to refuse to answer a question because it is âhypothetical.â Unless, of course, they like the question. Itâs frustrating, and Hans wants real information and sounds like his patience is wearing thin.
Nevertheless, any good White House reporter â and Hans is one of them â should know a press secretary doesnât take âhypotheticals,â and so the question, whoever asked it, was inartfully phrased. You never ask a press secretary â or any political type from whom you want an answer â what theyâll do or say âifâ something happens. It gives them an easy out.
The art of questioning â not an art, really but a skill at best â calls for being as precise and focused as possible.
BAD QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, how long will it take you to pass this legislation if you decide to seek a vote?
ANSWER: âWeâll see.â
GOOD QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, are you going to pass this legislation within two weeks?
ANSWER: I donât know if it can be done within two weeks.
FOLLOW UP: Three? By Memorial Day?
ANSWER: Yes, I think by Memorial Day.
And then you have a story: Speaker believes he can pass bill by Memorial Day.
When youâre specific and donât suggest something might not happen, you give people a frame of reference â in this case two or three weeks â they feel they must deal with. And NEVER, as was done above in the first question to Carney, include more than one question within one. It allows the subject to choose one, and if he answers more than one, to be excused for responding briefly and evasively â after all, heâs been asked so many questions!
Here, Hans does succeed in getting under Carneyâs skin â âI think youâre muddying, but thanksâ â which is a mistake by Carney. He should just chuckle and let the whole thing get diverted into whether the answers are âhypothetical.â It would make him seem forgivable for âplaying the gameâ and not answering questions.
And anyway, Carney is right in this instance. What Obama would say in answer to a hypothetical question must, ipso facto, also be hypothetical, since as Carney notes, the whole situation is hypothetical. Itâs not even clear that Obama would have anything to say at this point on the Keystone pipeline.
And that, friends, is your journalism school lesson for the day. Class dismissed. Talking back to the teacher and verbal spitballs are allowed as always in the comments section.