Monday, February 27, 2012

Get the Question Right

I just started reading "The Age of Anxiety" by Haynes Johnson, which traces what Johnson calls the culture of fear from the days of Joe McCarthy to present times.

Aside from solid research and a smooth writing style, Johnson's book almost immediately notes something we see all the time these days: the failure to ask the right question--any question, really-- in news stories. Johnson relates the  story of McCarthy's first speech where he claimed to have a list of known Communists serving in the State Department, and quotes at length the story about that first speech, which would lead to such hardship for so many. Aside from the fact that the charge is buried at the end of the story, guess what the reporter didn't ask?

He didn't ask to see the list.

I highly recommend this book. Among other things, you'll see certain accusations of socialism, disloyalty and demagoguery that will sound and feel familiar today, and while the book's primary emphasis is McCarthyism, the book serves as a great reminder of the great damage created by fear.

Also, though Johnson's been a major political journalism figure for years, it was fun discovering that he'd also worked as a copy editor at The Washington Post.

*The failure to ask the right question isn't limited to journalists. I'll skip the details but several years ago I was being deposed about a document the other side's team was convinced I'd produced that they felt supported their case. The lawyer waved the document under my nose, and with great flourish loudly asked, "Is this your signature?!" To which I replied no.  Someone had written my name at the top of the paper to indicate where it had come from. But he didn't follow up. End of case.

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