If the media is the immune system of democracy, as Craig Newmark likes to say, then the act of asking questions of the powerful might be thought of as the mitochondria, the energy source that powers the immune system. A good question is one that presents its recipient with a problem that must be resolved. It may raise uncomfortable facts, or highlight a contradiction, or merely demand that its subject explain him or herself on a topic they have avoided or would prefer to not address. Good questions insist on accountability, and good questioners insist on real answers, not obfuscations.
When we as a society, and the press in particular, fail to ask good questions of those with power or those who act in our name, our immune system weakens and democracy falters. So, my question is: how can we foster the asking of more good questions?
Today there are two kinds of people who can ask questions of the powerful: those who have an investigative role as part of their job description (journalists, cops, prosecutors, judges), and ordinary citizens. I’m not sure what can be done to make our legal system ask more questions, but I do think there are some things we can do to improve the behavior of journalists and ordinary citizens.
What if we rewarded good questions with public praise, and punished dumb questions (or failures to ask) with shame? Furthermore, what if we built a supply of good questions, so professional and citizen journalists alike could draw on collective intelligence to focus attention where it might be needed? Sometimes, very useful questions are asked of the powerful by ordinary people, in part because the powerful avoid the press, in part because the professional press sometimes shies away from offending the powerful, and in part because ordinary people get occasional opportunities to ask unexpected questions.
Think of Temple University graduate student Michael Rovito, who happened to walk up to GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin while she was picking up some cheesesteaks at a restaurant in South Philadelphia. At the time Palin was avoiding all contact with the press. Rovito asked her about the situation in Pakistan and whether the U.S. should do cross-border raids from Afghanistan to stop terrorists. She said she favored such action, even though her running mate John McCain had just criticized President Obama for doing exactly that. Rovito asked Palin a good question, and received a revealing response which was dutifully reported by the press.
At the same time, professional journalists often fail to ask good questions of powerful politicians, and instead act more like talk-show personalities seeking to keep the audience entertained. As Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel show in their new study of the 839 questions asked during the 20 Republican debates held so far this election season, there is a wide divergence as well between the topics the public is interested in and the topics professional journalists often ask during those debates. The public never asks for questions about polls or negative ads, for example, yet those questions come up frequently (13% of the total). Huge topics, like climate change, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, education, small business, and how to prevent another economic crash came up just 23 times in all, or just about 3% of the total.
What to do? Here are three ideas for action:
1. Let’s join in with Rosen, Michel and the Studio 20 NYU class and make the hashtag #unasked into a living repository of good questions for politicians and other powerful actors. This can start simple and grow.
2. Let’s figure out how to shine a light on professional journalists who have the greatest access and watchdog their work. Good questions should be rewarded; I’ve been using the hashtag #goodqstion to share ones that I like. Truly dumb and wasteful ones (see #dianesawyerquestions or this one-minute this or that compilation: Elvis or Johnny Cash, John King?) often earn opprobrium on their own, but maybe there’s more we can do to shame journalists who are particularly awful in this regard.
3. Let’s reward good questions from citizens. Seriously, let’s give people like Michael Rovito prizes for sticking their necks out.
Isidore Rabi, who won the 1944 Nobel Prize winner in physics, was asked how it was that he became a scientist. His reply: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”
That difference can also make our democracy healthier. We may not all agree on absolute truths, but if we keep asking good questions, we can drive out foolishness and falsehood.