Hey, ‘Gotcha’! Caughtcha!

CJR's new software guards against gotcha-ism

Dear Journalists,

We’re writing to inform you that there’s an injustice being carried out in the late weeks of this presidential campaign, a blight that threatens the reputation of the entire journalistic profession. We’re referring to “gotcha journalism”—a failure on the part of the media to demonstrate the proper deference to the public officials who serve us, protect us, and put our country first—and we fear that it is spreading, like a worm through bad apples, among normally self-respecting, respectful reporters. Members of the press have lately been asking direct questions of a vice presidential candidate who has done little to deserve such questioning.

Yes, we know. It is horrifying.

And it gets worse: The problem of gotcha journalism has recently become so pronounced that, now, it’s being engaged in not merely by journalists, but also by voters themselves (though, we should note, we have yet to see any convincing proof that such “members of the electorate” are, in fact, concerned citizens, rather than self-interested partisans and/or individual organs of the liberal media elite out to spread their socialist agenda to freedom-loving Americans). Take, for example, the Temple University grad student who, while waiting in line for a Philly cheese steak on Monday and finding himself face-to-face with Sarah Palin, asked her about Pakistan. (“How about the Pakistan situation?” the sweatshirt-swathed scamp demanded. “What are your thoughts about that?”) Which is shameful. Just shameful. His lips may have said, “Pakistan,” but his eyes said, “Gotcha.”

Where is the deference, Random Grad Student? Sarah Palin has done nothing but volunteer to serve the nation—our nation—by being A Heartbeat Away From The Presidency; how dare you ask her about the situation in some foreign country? Have you left no sense of decency?

This behavior simply cannot continue. The audacity we’ve seen in our media of late—Katie Couric, as you may have heard, recently had the temerity to ask Palin about the economy—is becoming a disgrace to the profession, and an insult to all Americans. Those who care about journalism and its future must unite against such misbegotten attempts to inform the electorate.

Therefore, to patrol the situation—and, we hope, to remedy it—we’ve developed specialized software that will allow us to track the levels of gotcha-ism present in each and every one of the four interviews conducted between Sarah Palin and members of the media. Gotchaware™ uses a complex algorithm—accounting for, among other things, elapsed seconds of Awkward Pause between the interviewer’s questions and the interviewee’s answers, the degree of inquisitive head-cocking on the part of the interviewer, the centrifugal force of the interviewer’s professorial foot-circling, and the number of undergraduate institutions attended, in all, by both participants—to calibrate with remarkable precision the glib elitism and all-out maliciousness a journalist betrays in his or her interview.

Gotchaware™ tracks a reporter’s rudeness as he or she tries to trap Ms. Palin with questions about tribal regions ending in “-stan,” queries relating to an economic crisis that no one but Hank Paulson really understands, requests for clarification following nonsensical answers, the use of polysyllabic words, etc. And it works, according to our pilot runs of the software:

* Charlie Gibson, September 11, 2008:
Question: “Have you ever met a foreign head of state?”
Gotcha Quotient: 95
Reason: First of all, foreign policy-related questions are incredibly unfair. As Laura Bush herself said, Palin lacks foreign policy experience, but she is a very quick study. And we haven’t given her enough time actually to study. So you can’t ask about that. Second, Gibson already knew that Palin had never met a foreign head of state. Third, everyone knows that foreign policy questions are always designed to force candidates to pronounce “Ahmadinejad.” Dirty pool, Mr. Gibson.

* Sean Hannity, September 17, 2008:
Question: “Explain when you were governor and, as governor of Alaska, how you took on your own party.”
Gotcha Quotient: 23
Reason: Two-part questions are notoriously tricky to answer. Explain both when you were governor and how you were governor? Also, “party” is incredibly unclear, since it can mean both “political party” and “social gathering.” And what self-respecting politician would want to take responsibility for opposing a party that involves delicious snacks and six-packs of beer?

* Katie Couric, September 30, 2008:
Question: “What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?”
Gotcha Quotient: 98
Reason: Trying to trap “Ms. Joe Sixpack” into admitting that she reads publications sponsored by the Elite Liberal Media? Trying to force a politician to admit that she reads at all? Slick, Ms. Couric, slick.

* Hugh Hewitt, September 30, 2008:
Question: “Have you followed the attacks on you, say, via Drudge or the blogs? Some of them are just made up and out of left field, others are just mocking. Do you follow those?”
Gotcha Quotient: 9
Reason: Those attacks are certainly vile and disgraceful and deserving of being called out in an interview with the governor. But mentioning “mocking” goes too far. You’re talking to a lady, Mr. Hewitt. Discussions of mockery and other species of rudeness have no place in mixed company.

So there it is, proven with scientific accuracy: Journalists of all stripes are becoming gotcha-ist. And, in turn, elitist and smug and mean to a woman who has done nothing but run for office. Once again, we have to say: This cannot stand. How much more of this rudeness and scorn can we afford?

Do your part. Buy Gotchaware™ today.


The Journosoft Team

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.