The Question Scoreboard

Media | Accountability
“I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.”
–President Bush’s immediate response to a question about what his biggest mistake was after 9/11, and what he learned from it.

Putting aside the question of where the Bush’s quote ranks with other incredulous answers in uttered in Presidential news conferences (cf. Eisenhower on whether he could give an example of a major idea of Vice President Nixon’s that had been adopted in his administration: “If you can give me a week, I might think of one.”), as well as how grace under pressure is perceived as a reliable indicator of leadership (Eric Rauchway considers these in Altercation today), not too mention, after three years, is this guy still embarassingly underprepared for the most important job on Earth? let’s actually consider the point.

Written vs. Verbal Accountability

Imagine a world where everything is written. Well, you don’t have to imagine very hard, because you’re in that world right now, reading this over the Internet. And this is just your leisure time. If you work in an office, you might have some fancy project or process management software (like the kind my employer sells) which tracks how you complete your work. Just as well your boss sends you a list of items to work on, and you better check off on the items that you’ve worked. If you leave any unchecked, you’re shirking your responsibilities.

The vagaries of a verbal Q & A are that it makes great theater– or television, as we now say. But great theater doesn’t also make for complete answers. The histrionics, when it doesn’t come from the subject (think Rumsfeld) comes from the questioners instead. Fred Barnes, coming to the President’s defense in an online Weekly Standard column, observed: “By my count, reporters got in 15 questions. I categorize them this way: six were seeking information, three were gotcha, three were accusations, one was obscure, one stupid, one showboating.” (from Campaign Desk)

(How would Barnes categorize the question from Bill Sammon of the Washington Times and Fox News? Josh Marshall noted that the President referred to it as a “must call”, ie., that “must call” some questions in order to duck out of the really hard ones– like as Mike Allen asked, how come the President couldn’t appear at the 9/11 Commission without the Vice President.)

There are additional complaints about press conferences, many of which have been ably catalogued by Slate’s PressBox department, among them: the inability of the reporters to follow-up on each other’s questions, the time demands of the 24-hour “news cycle” which squeezes the time for reporters to do research, the press secretaries themselves…

The written word restores the focus back on the substance… unless of course you try to be hip with an “Internet chat”, which is the worst of both worlds. Any substance or eloquence is offset by the fact that w o r d s    t y p  e d   i n   r e a  l  t  t i  m   e c   o me  a c r o s s p a i n f u  ll y    s  l o  w   a n d   un e v e n. Internet chats as an electoral tool should be banished to the dustbin of recorded phone solicitations and hanging chads.

The Proposal

Here’s a better way. Self-appointed representatives of the people (ie., the media) should solicit questions their constituents (their readers) as to what questions should be asked. Contributors should be able to vote on the precise wording of the questions to ask– in theory, showboating or gotcha questions would be devalued. People should chose those questions they are earnestly interested in. Call it the Question Scoreboard.

I’ve set up a page on Stump the President to demonstrate this using my ViewPoints technology. Ultimately, participants would not only grade the questions, but the answers as well. This way, they can express whether the question has been sufficiently answered. How about hearing a question prefaced like this: “Mr. President, 30 million of our readers have been unsatisfied with your inability to answer this question for the last 15 months.”

There’s no reason to limit this to the office of the Presidency, or Presidential candidates. Any legitimate organization should seek to list the type of questions that are being asked, and the answers they have for them (this was originally the spirit of F.A.Q.‘s but as they are not automated, their use is still very limited). Obviously, not every question need be answered by the top; in successful organizations, subordinates are empowered to answer questions (and are sufficiently briefed in order to speak for the organization). The process would be open to all of the stakeholders to participate in, and they can see a scoreboard of how completely the questions have been answered.

This wouldn’t spell the end of the press conference, which are absolutely necessary. Leaders should be prepared to be asked the tough questions every day, and giving press conferences either the practice or the performance that they can. Still, it might diminsh theatrics of the event, and of the post-game analysis. With a set of objective measurements, these interchanges can be scored less like a boxing match and more like a baseball game.