*This post was first published on May 11, 2020

English has one distinct advantage over Italian. The distinction between an assertive and interrogative is embedded in the construction of the sentence. In writing Italians have to rely on the question mark, and in speaking they have to rely on inflection. Nevertheless the rhetorical is available in both languages. Whether I ask it as, “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “The Pope is Catholic?” what’s intended is not a question, but rather a yes to whatever was the previous question.

Would that it were that simple. Politicians are particularly adept at pretending to interpret a straightforward question as a rhetorical one. When a reporter asks, “Mr. President, how do you reconcile what you’ve just said with what you said yesterday?”, she intends it a question. But what he pretends to hear is, “Mr. President, you’re contradicting yourself.” Once this pattern is allowed to set in, there’s no way to ask any question the answer to which the politician would prefer not to answer. One might just as well acknowledge that a briefing isn’t a briefing about anything. It’s a prompt for him to pivot to just another stump speech, in which case why bother with the pretense of asking questions?

That was a rhetorical question, by the way, to which the answer is clear. We should do away with these prompts from these journalists-in-name-only unless they’re going to press the speaker, and keep pressing him, his pivoting notwithstanding, to either answer the question that was asked or be explicit in his refusal to do so.

Why won’t these journalists-in-name-only do that? Because they know that if they did there’d be no more press briefings. But they need these pseudo-briefings to provoke some off-the-cuff sound bite they can sell to their editor as ‘breaking news’.

Was there ever a time when …? Or has it always been thus? I’m not sure. Has the art of the pivot always been this ubiquitous or am I just becoming more impatient and intolerant of it? In either case, why doesn’t there seem to be any pushback against this pretence at journalism?

That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. I’d keep pressing for an answer, but such is the irrelevance of philosophers to the real world that only at my peril would I be holding my breath.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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3 replies

  1. You are right in describing this symbiotic relationship (in any language). The journalists pretend to ask a question seeking information when she is really seeking to create political embarrassment. The politicians pretend to answer, but say something self-aggrandizing rather than embarrassing. The participants in this game both go home after the scrum and collect their salaries. The only loser is the viewer, who has wasted time watching an uninformative ritual.


  2. It can often feel ‘objective’ to blame both sides—and to assume there’s only two:

    This situation is beyond the dichotomies of left and right politics, of journalists and politicians.


  3. Here’s my beef:

    Stand in one room while the television is on in the other. Now see if you can distinguish the voices of Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) and Tucker Carlson (Fox News). I can’t. Notice that it’s not just their voices that are similar, it’s their style. Each sounds like a pouty prepubescent child who, in a jealous fit of high dudgeon, tattles on the teacher’s pet, Becky Merkelstein. “You wouldn’t think Becky is so great if you saw her stick her tongue out at the crippled boy!” This grade school tactic has a purpose. Maddow and Carlson are not simply delivering a political commentary, they’re telling you how you should feel about it, namely angry.


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