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June 08, 2010

Helen Thomas stories miss the point

We don't judge prosecutors by the questions they ask during cross-examination, but by the answers they get. We don't judge lawyers by the questions they ask during depositions, but by the answers they get.

Which brings us to Helen Thomas.

Every story about the retiring columnist cites, either in praise or dismay, the questions she asked. That was what she did, evidently. She "aggressively questioned 10 presidents," the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz noted. She "had the guts to ask President Bush the tough questions that define the free press," swooned The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel.

Questions, questions, questions.

All of which miss the point. Yes, Helen Thomas, and Sam Donaldson and David Gregory and any number of others pose tough questions, but 'pose' is the operative word:  See me, asking the tough question! I'm a reporter, making 'em squirm!

But here's the deal: The reporter's job is not to ask the tough questions. The reporter's job is to get the necessary answers. Questions are a matter of process, and it's the story, not the process, that really matters. When questions count more than answers, then the focus has been misaligned.


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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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