I am ready to bestow my ever-lasting loyalty and admiration, not to mention a lifetime Ethics Hero award and maybe even a monthly stipend upon the first broadcast journalist who pledges to employ henceforward what I will call “The Bachmann-Plouffe Rule.” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos emphatically did NOT employ the rule this morning in his back-to-back interviews of White House advisor David Plouffe and Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, inspiring me 1) to name the rule and 2) throw my newspaper at the TV screen. Twice.
I don’t have the transcript, but I can fairly describe the exchanges. Plouffe was routinely mouthing Obama re-election talking points, when Stephanopoulos pressed him on the issue of gay marriage, specifically regarding the fact that the Democrats are talking about having a national campaign platform plank that explicitly endorses it, while the President has notably declined to give a clear endorsement of same-sex marriage. George asked why Obama doesn’t just declare that he supports it, and, if he does not do so, whether his ambivalence will place him at odds with his party’s position.
Plouffe didn’t answer the question.
He said that the President’s position on gay marriage was every clear (but didn’t say what it was, because it isn’t clear), that Obama is proud of the elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Administration’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (raising the issue of whether he should be proud of refusing to defend the duly passed laws of the United States, as he swore to do, whether he likes one of them or not…but never mind), and the real focus should be on the Republican position opposing gay marriage. None of which remotely addressed what George asked.
Still, the ABC host just thanked the White House politico, and moved on to Bachmann, who was as creepily robotic as ever. Toward the end of the interview with her, he asked about the infamous Etch-A-Sketch comment of Mitt Romney’s chief aide, and asked whether the comment raises concerns among conservatives that Romney isn’t the champion of the Right he claims to be.
Michele Bachmann didn’t answer the question.
Although in her case, it might not be her fault, as her programmer might have failed to enter the data and command that would enable her to do so.)
The Congresswoman said that the party would unite behind whomever won the nomination, which isn’t what George asked at all.
Year after year, interview after interview, we see and hear this charade, and it is both insulting to the public and lousy, useless, pandering journalism. A deceitful non-answer like those given by Plouffe and Bachmann should be met with this response, and met with it routinely, so future interviewees cannot claim surprise:
“With all due respect, that response did not answer my question, and it was clear that your intent was not to answer my question while pretending to do so. I am now going to repeat the question, and give you two options, which is fair. You can answer the question in good faith, or you can say, truthfully, to me and my viewers, ‘I’m sorry, but I do not feel comfortable answering that question at this time.’ If, however, you again reply with talking points or an answer to a question that I did not ask, this interview is over, and you can leave the studio. Now I will repeat the question…”
And thus Bachmann-Plouffe Rule: A non-answer to a clear question requires the interviewer to respond accordingly.
The rule is not only fair and honest, but necessary and responsible. I am sure that politicians will hate it, and that many of them, like Bachmann, whose answers seldom have any but the most tangential relationship to what she is asked, won’t give interviews to journalists who employ the B-P Rule. We shouldn’t care. Non-answer answers are essentially lies…they pretend that they answer difficult queries, when the purpose is not to answer them. Journalists do not do their job by tolerating this, although the tradition of tolerating it is older than Edward R. Murrow.
I know we see something akin to the response I described in isolated instances. Piers Morgan, for example, pressed Tea Party-dim bulb Christine O’Donnell after an unresponsive answer on his CNN “Larry King Without Larry King Show,” leading to O’Donnell’s bizarre complaint that she should only have to answer questions about what she was prepared to talk about, after which she walked off the set. But Morgan is only tough on easy targets like O’Donnell, or figures who he dislikes or disagrees with. The Bachmann-Plouffe Rule, in contrast, must be blind, and equally applied to all regardless of status, party, ideology or popularity.
[Thanks to Jeff Field, to whom I owe two dollars for finding one of my all-too-frequent typos]