Questioning the Cocaine Question

Questioning the Cocaine Question

Questioning the Cocaine Question

Letters from our readers.
Sept. 2 1999 3:30 AM

Questioning the Cocaine Question

Ask, but Don't Tell

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Real reporters don't write, "I asked" because it's not important who asked the question. While framing questions in a way to draw out interesting or informative answers is important, as your article "The Cocaine Question" points out, it's still the answer that matters. And while reporters (print and electronic) talking on television often talk about themselves and how they developed a story, in the newspaper itself it's the story that matters. There really is enough self-promotion in the business, and your suggestion that we advertise our authorship of questions would make it worse.

Moreover, you misrepresent the article you criticize. Gov. George Bush was not asked that day in Akron, Ohio, about "long-ago cocaine abuse," and my story did not say he had been. He had declined to answer a question about what he had told his daughters about drugs--on the reasonable ground that he wanted to leave them out of the campaign. But as NBC's David Bloom was trying to rephrase the question in a more general way, Bush did it for him, and said baby boomer parents should tell their children not to use drugs, and do so forthrightly.

I then followed up with this question, for which I make no apology because it corresponds with an obvious reality: "And if a child asks a baby boomer parent--'Well, did you?' "

His reply, which I quoted and characterized as "awkward," was: "I think the baby boomer parent ought to say, 'I've learned from mistakes I may or may not have made. And I'd like to share some wisdom with you.' "

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--Adam Clymer

New York

William Saletan replies:You're a fine and careful reporter. A careful reporter gives the reader enough context to put each quote in perspective and to understand how the events of the day were shaped. Why doesn't this rule apply to your questioning of Bush?

Bush evidently would have preferred to talk to the press that day about tax cuts and religious charities. Instead, reporters asked him about issues arising from the controversy over his alleged drug abuse and--in the case of your question--the implications of that controversy for what boomer parents should say to their kids about drugs. In short, you, David Bloom, and the other reporters on hand chose the topic. That's a major reason (albeit not the only reason--Bush provided some justification in his speech) why "questions about drug use" ended up in your headline, and "faith-based institutions" ended up buried at the bottom. In that sense, you helped drive the story. If you don't report this fact, aren't you omitting information that the reader needs in order to understand the persistence of the drug story?

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You say that "it's not important who asked the question." But if a protester had shouted your question at Bush, would you have reported who asked the question? If so, why not follow the same practice when the person posing the question is a reporter?

I share your distaste for journalists talking about themselves, and I don't propose that we print our names every time we ask a question. Usually, as you know, the choice of topic is fairly obvious. But isn't there some point at which the media's choice of topic can become so controversial and so determinative of the course of the campaign that the principle of self-disclosure supersedes the principle of modesty?

You're right that I oversimplified the exchange with Bush in Ohio. The questions were about what he had told his kids about drugs, and what other parents should tell their kids. Of course, we both know that the implicit background to these questions was the rumors of Bush's own drug abuse, and in that sense, this larger topic was what your question and the others were "about." Nobody was asking Gary Bauer such questions that day (except perhaps for pointed contrast), because the obvious hook for these questions is Bush's alleged hypocrisy.

Still, I should have characterized your question more carefully. I'll take responsibility for my oversight. Will you take responsibility for yours?

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Lines of Succession

Carter as Henry VI (see "Hail to the King," by Steven E. Landsburg)? At times, Henry was mentally ill or at least clinically depressed. So much so that it was unsafe to leave him alone with sharp objects. Doesn't sound like Carter to me.

Edward IV a great king? This is the guy who spurned an offer of marriage with the daughter of the king of France, a marriage that would have created a valuable alliance, in favor of a commoner. He married her without notifying anyone in his court. This shortsightedness caused his chief ally, Warwick, to defect to Lancaster, and they were able to oust Edward from the throne for a time. It was only with the aid of his brother, the eventual Richard III, that Edward was able to reclaim it.

English people turning to Henry VII? That's the biggest joke of all. Henry won one battle and, fortunately for him, killed Richard. The English people accepted Henry as king, despite his having the aid of foreign troops, because they were tired of civil war, not out of any love for Henry. The fact that Henry killed off all the York heirs and blamed some of their murders on Richard helped him keep the throne. And it let his son, Henry VIII, become the most powerful and autocratic of all English rulers.

So, if Landsburg is correct, it means that we have a dictator (read Buchanan) in our future.

--David Brandon

Los Angeles