I read a commentary piece yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer from the guy who asked Sarah Palin about following Taliban fighters back across the Afghani/Pakistani border while getting some food at the cheesesteak shop (note – not a pizzaria), Tony Luke’s. The internet rumor-mil and the campaign and candidates themselves jumped on the name of the questioner as an anti-Palin reporter from Palin’s home town in Alaska.
It seems that the guy, actually a Temple University graduate student named Michael Rovito, shares his name with a reporter for the Wasilla, Alaska newspaper, The Frontiersman. I get that someone on the internet saw the question being attributed to Michael Rovito and assumed it was the reporter associated with commenting on Wasilla and Palin; that just makes sense. What are the odds that another guy with the same name happened to ask that question, right? But Palin had to know this wasn’t the same guy. Wasilla is a tiny town. She was the mayor and he is one of very few reporters. They must know each other on sight. I’m fairly certain she recognized the man asking her questions as someone other than the Frontiersman’s Michael Rovito, and yet she and the campaign claimed this was ‘Gotcha Journalism’ by a reporter who tracked her across the country to politically trip-her-up.
But what is ‘Gotcha Journalism’ anyway? The only thing I could really attribute it to was perhaps journalists taking a page from the playbook of political campaigning and stripping a candidate’s ideas down until you’ve got just the few words that could be attributed to anything when said by themselves but carry a negative connotation nevertheless.
This was obviously nothing of the sort. Sarah Palin showed up at a cheesesteak place to casually mingle with the public. Some people asked her some innocuous questions about how McCain did in the debate and if she was ready for her debate. Michael said in the Inquirer commentary that he was surprised no one was asking anything more serious of the candidate, and it prompted him to ask her something more pressing, himself. That’s not ‘Gotcha Journalism’ and it wouldn’t have been ‘Gotcha Journalism’ if it was asked by a reporter. If Sarah Palin were giving press conferences every other day and aswering this question regularly and then one day while in a crowd, she answered something contradictory, you could argue there was a miscommunication and that the reporter should have used her press conference comments. But Palin doesn’t give press conferences. This is one of the first unscripted question and answer encounters she’s had, and the others were scheduled with the media and prepared for.
If the public doesn’t accept this questioning, not only as completely valid, but the act of a responsible voter then there’s something terribly wrong with the voting public. We’ve already been shoehorned into the position where debates are simply joint press conferences where candidates look at questions as optional. They are doing fewer interviews with journalists, who are in turn asking fewer serious questions. I understand that we will become used to this and even expect this behavior by the candidates and the media, but what happens when we personally filter any other exchange out. “Oh, that question was not approved by the candidate; I better not pay attention to her answer!” It’s a sad day when we allow ourselves to consume only the packaged political statements and managed exchanges and shirk our responsibility to take opportunities to get unfiltered answers from candidates themselves.
Long live the impromptu question!