Next question.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

'Gotcha' Questions Just Don't Work

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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For a professional politician, there's nothing easier than turning the tables on a journalist's "tough" question.

The latest example was at the president's press conference on Wednesday when Major Garrett of CBS News asked Barack Obama about four Americans held in Iran on "trumped-up charges." Garrett posed his question this way: 

Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?

Well, that was easy, wasn't it? The president's response: 

I've got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions.

The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails, Major, that's nonsense, and you should know better. I've met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody's content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.

As the Washington Post's James Downie tweeted:

Yup. But what did the exchange demonstrate, beyond one reporter's unfortunate choice of words? Simply this: Reporters and debate moderators can't "force" politicians to address an issue. Newt Gingrich practically ran his 2012 campaign around waiting for debate moderators to overstep so he could punch back, to the delight of media-hating Republicans. 

It's worth stressing this lesson, especially with the 2016 presidential debates just around the corner. 

What worked on "The West Wing" isn't how real politics works. Press conferences and debates give politicians an opportunity to make promises and to explain themselves to their constituents -- that is, they're part of the process of representation. The format allows reporters to ask about anything, no matter how uncomfortable a topic might be for the president or candidate. 

The value is when reporters raise tough topics, not when they try to make politicians look bad. Even when politicians trip themselves up, the gaffes are rarely are as consequential as the promises and explanations they've given in their answers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at