No Harm In Asking?

Donald Trump's confrontation with a CNN correspondent shows the delicate balance of asking questions the right way

The notable Washington journalist and former New York Times columnist Russel Bakes once described the journalistic work in his sharp style: "I spent my life in marble corridors waiting for important people to lie to me."

When asked to comment in the frequent clashes between US president Donald Trump and the press, Baker, 93, said: "It's a strategy to shock people - and in the end, profit from it."

Baker's point of view, sent by a well-informed Folha reader, can explain last week's confrontation between Trump and CNN correspondent Jim Acosta that cost the journalist his White House credential. It's a milestone. It's undoubtedly one of the most arbitrary acts from Trump from the standpoint of the White House's relationship with its press corps.

Acosta had questioned the president about the South American caravan approaching the United States border and then about the Russian collusion investigations. Trump became angry, complained of what he calls "CNN's lying" and told the reporter to sit down and give the microphone up.

Another three reporters also clashed with Trump in the last few days, reinforcing the hypothesis that Trump is acting with deliberation. 

The immediate reaction from the press community was of solidarity with Acosta, and of criticism of Trump for disrespecting the right of free speech and freedom of the press. A few criticized the report, like Poynter's Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, who wrote that Acosta could have asked his questions in a more neutral tone.

While still condemning Trump's acts, I think that Tompkins and McBride touched an essential and delicate point. What's the limit for a reporter's actions? How far can the journalist go to try to get their interviewer out of the comfort zone and obtain the information they need?

Journalism textbooks recommend short and objective questions that don't contain any indication that the interviewer already has a formed opinion of the interviewee or the topic. There is a clear difference between being incisive and being offensive. Well-formulated questions are technical, and seek to clarify and not to confront.

Folha's stylebook guides our journalists to treat interviewees with courtesy, even during more incisive questioning; encourages to cover thorny issues and preaches that if evasive replies should be followed up with requesting the interviewee to answer more transparently and objectively.

Also during last week, president-elect Jair Bolsonaro gave several small interviews to journalists about the transition. It caught my attention how José Luiz Datena, from TV network Bandeirantes, treated Bolsonaro by his first name, in a very relaxed manner.

The excellent interviewer should keep a healthy distance from the interviewee, and in Bolsonaro's case, follow the appropriate way to address the president. One needs to be respectful without being subservient. There is a middle ground between the two.

For an example of the extreme opposite, I noticed the reverential treatment from several journalists at a press conference from the future Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro. But a reader complained about Folha's question, which he considered irrelevant.

Reporter Camila Mattoso said that Moro had described the president-elect as "reasonable and sensible." Camila then mentioned to Moro that Bolsonaro had defended torture, Brazil's military dictatorship, and vigilante groups; he also claimed to be unable to love a gay son and that he wanted to shoot Workers' Party supporters. Moro replied that these soundbites are put "out of context" and that, in his opinion, Bolsonaro had softened his words during the campaign.

I think the question made sense, as it sought to show how much Moro was willing to associate with episodes that are anything but reasonable and sensible. Also, Moro might in the future find himself being judged by such association -- by Folha's readers, by Brazilian voters, and by history.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language  ​