Do journalist's careers suffer when they ask hard questions?
February 27, 2016 9:37 AM   Subscribe

How bad is it really for a journalist who asks a politician a question and does not accept a dissembling, disingenuous, or simply irrelevant response? That politician may not give them another interview or call on them at press conferences, but does that actually cost the reporter prestige or income or job opportunities?
posted by alpheus to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
didn't this (reporters being fired for asking tough questions) happen in japan just this month? here's the grauniad on it.
posted by andrewcooke at 9:40 AM on February 27, 2016

It depends...on the journalist (and their status within their profession), the politician (and their status), the stakes involved with question, if the questioning is happening in public or private -- among other things.

Deciding What's News is considered kind of landmark study of the kind of thing (even though some parts are pretty dated now.)
posted by pantarei70 at 10:05 AM on February 27, 2016

Foreign journalists maybe expelled from the country they are covering. Plenty of journalists outside of the United States have actually been murdered. Reporters may be escorted off the premises for attempting to ask inconvenient questions of corporate executives. Journalists sometimes trade challenging questions for access to sources they would not otherwise get by promising to share their questions in advance or by agreeing not to bring up certain topics. There was a famous case years ago in which a newspaper reporter wrote stories about Dole or a similar company that made the corporation so angry it pressured the newspaper publisher so much that the reporter lost his job. Can't dig up links at the moment but will find some later. BTW, as a former journalist I never believed that anyone who was not a public official was obligated to answer any of my questions but I was certainly allowed to ask them. Not everyone agreed with me and a PR person at Apple wanted to shut me up at one press conference but the new (and not very good, and short-lived) CEO was good-natured about answering the question my editor had sent me to ask, which was: How do you justify being paid such an enormous salary? A: It reflects market rates. Which was true and also ridiculous. He was a terrible CEO of a public company and walked away with millions anyway.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:06 AM on February 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

A Florida governor once threatened to punch me after I asked a hard question. (Which he never did answer.)
posted by Skipjack at 10:24 AM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

We were just discussing this last night at a journalism event I attended. It does happen at times that someone is prominent enough to cut off one's access and that affects their coverage. A colleague related that he was once cut off by the office of a congressman when he was publicly critical of the politician. But he continued to work at that outlet after that.

Rudy Giuliani paused, then completely ignored the question I asked him in the scrum after a vice-presidential debate. It didn't really affect me (but then, it wasn't mission-critical to my job at the time). My question (about Sarah Palin's email problems and how that informed her fitness to govern) was quite pointed, but likely not something he had a talking point on. I wasn't playing the game right, and so he didn't deign to respond. (As we know, how elected officials manage their email has become quite the topic and a huge criticism of Hillary Clinton since then.)
posted by limeonaire at 10:34 AM on February 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Jeremy Paxman built his reputation on it, but as a high-profile primary host of the BBC's flagship political news/current affairs show he had a lot of backup and the UK's politicians generally didn't have the option to avoid facing him without being accused of cowardice.
posted by corvine at 10:42 AM on February 27, 2016

This is like asking "How bad is it for an athlete's career to attempt to score points?" The asking itself is one of their primary responsibilities. Another is maintaining relationships with people in power despite asking hard questions. So whether the attempt is a score or a miss or a disasterous airball depends on how well they do a lot of other stuff leading up to that moment.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:03 AM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Not exactly a current example but a UK soft-news journalist, Selina Scott, did a tv documentary in 1995 about an American businessman (can't bring his name to mind) who was known for his arrogance and tastelessness.

Her show made a few slightly mocking references to his man's foibles (i could draw you a picture of him, but the name won't come), nothing too serious, but the guy (ooh, what is it ?!) had a sense of humour failure and pursued her until her career was toast. She was a popular and respected presenter at the time, prime time, but it finished her BBC career.

She has worked since but her profile, which was at its peak, was destroyed by the confrontation.

More here.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 12:22 PM on February 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know about the role of the individual journalists responsible, but Sir Alex Ferguson (massively successful former Man Utd manager) refused to speak to the BBC at all for seven years because he took umbrage at a BBC documentary about his son.

As big as the BBC is, that was a pretty big problem for them as a news- and sports-reporting organisation, given that he was one of the biggest names in football at the time ie. It went beyond just keeping someone out of a press conference. Sorry I don't have info about the impact on individuals' careers, but that might give you enough info to start digging.
posted by penguin pie at 1:19 PM on February 27, 2016

I can only echo what everyone's said - it depends. I have seen, and sometimes been an active part of, an entire spectrum of how this plays out.

Assuming you are a conscientious journalist who is asking a hard question because you know it matters what the answer is, then the results can span the entire range of losing your job to becoming a hero. It can be both. It can result in nothing happening at all. If you keep asking the hard questions and keep writing up the results - for years - then you will gain respect and may even make a difference, but you will not find it an easy road.

If you are lucky - because you have a lot of talent, because you find yourself in a suportive environment, because you are in a place where you can survive - then you can keep on at this. You may have to meet and overcome legal threats from those with the resources of a small country, or illegal pressure from corporations who know how to make an anonymous phone call that threatens your children at 2 AM, or whose CEO tells your CEO that they'll pull multiple million dollars' worth of advertising if you don't shut the fuck up. These are just the things I have personal experience of (no, I wasn't the noble hack who caused any of those, but I've seen them happen to friends).

Or you don't get invited on the next press jolly to Vegas, Or you get to see a lying bastard go down in flames in prime time.

Or you can get arrested or disappeared or have your children killed in front of you.

Or nothing much happens.

It all depends.

Journalism. It's a land of contrasts.
posted by Devonian at 6:30 PM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

There was a famous case years ago in which a newspaper reporter wrote stories about Dole or a similar company that made the corporation so angry it pressured the newspaper publisher so much that the reporter lost his job.

I think you're thinking of the case of Chiquita and the Cincinnati Enquirer? (Self-link to my own MeFi post.) That one's complicated by the way the reporter listened to Chiquita voicemails without permission—although I don't think it ever came out how he got access to the voicemails. However it happened, not quite the same thing as asking hard questions.
posted by brett at 6:55 PM on February 27, 2016

Rob Ford quite famously (well, in Toronto, anyway) banned the entire Toronto Star staff from receiving any communications from his staff or any interviews with him, because he did not like a story they ran about him.

And that was *before* they started writing the crack video story.

It didn't hurt the careers of any of the individuals involved since it was the whole paper -- might have been a different story if he'd just banned whoever was on the City Desk.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:14 PM on February 27, 2016

From what I've seen, and as others have said here, it's a very delicate balance between maintaining relationships that might open up to candidness every now and then, and totally alienating your sources. That requires a lot of judgment. It's not about getting fired, or reprisals from your editor. It's about whether you're going to get tips, access to availabilities, opportunities for longer interviews and profiles that might result in more revealing interactions. It can be a long game.

I woudn't say this is true for all journos, though. it's clear there is a "fast journalism" model that doesn't play a long game and doesn't care about relationships. That's one reason the news is shallow, but it's not so much a journalist's fault as the outlet's philosophy.
posted by Miko at 10:51 PM on February 27, 2016

What makes journalists successful is their ability to know how to build a repoir with subjects, know when to ask the right questions, and when to push for answers from an evasive subject. They need to build trust and establish credibility to get the higher level, one on one interviews, and must always be aware that if they offend their subject - yes, that could be their last interview with them, and yes, if they have no clout and the outlet fears they won't be able to assign anyone else, could be fired as well.

Simply pressing for an answer or asking hard questions isn't as simple as it sounds, to begin with. You'll note that journalists know for both asking and being answered on tough subjects tend to have built a reputation that the subject would fear negative press if they didn't answer.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 12:24 AM on February 28, 2016

In the case of the White House, there is very limited access to the WH press room, and the credentials are specific to individual journalists acting in their employment capacity for particular press outlets. I am on my phone so I can't look it up for you, but there have definitely been reporters who have lost their WH press credentials for irritating the Press Secretary or the president.
posted by gingerest at 12:43 AM on February 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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