Let’s venture into the mind of a political journalist.
Dangerous journey, I know. But this past week filled me with a sense of introspection that I want to share.
It started at the Iowa State Fair, where I covered most of the Democratic presidential candidates who spoke at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox and wandered the fairgrounds casting kernels, flipping pork chops, careening down slides and eating fried things on sticks.
If you have not witnessed the spectacle, reporters follow the candidates as they traverse the fairgrounds, firing off questions to snag a few quotes for a story.
One question kept recurring. It was asked of many — if not all of the candidates.
And it bothered me.
“Do you think Donald Trump is a white supremacist (or racist)?”
The question alone was enough to get under my skin. The number of times it was asked drove me crazy. (Ask someone who follows me on Twitter what I thought of the questions.)
My issue with that question is it serves no newsworthy purpose. Regardless of whether it’s a “yes,” a “no” or something in between, the answer provides no value to the reader.
Frankly, it’s a question designed to get an easy story.
“(Insert candidate here) says Donald Trump is (or is not) a white supremacist,” the headlines surely read.
It’s the only story that can come from asking such a question, and it’s a story that provides absolutely no value to the news consumer. What does it matter whether Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren think Donald Trump is racist? In what way does that serve the consumer or advance the national dialogue?
If these reporters were genuinely concerned with the rising issues sparked by racism, white nationalism and white supremacy, there are plenty of thoughtful questions to ask.
“What do you think President Donald Trump should be saying or doing to address the horrific incidents perpetrated by white nationalists?”
“What would you do, as president, to heal racial tensions or address the apparent rise of white supremacy?”
“Is there executive action you would take or legislation you would push?”
Any of those questions would address the issue in a more thoughtful and meaningful way.
Instead, I heard over and over a simplistic question designed to do nothing more than produce a clickbait headline. It was disappointing.
The other moment I want to share came during my reporting of U.S. Rep. Steve King’s appearance before a conservative group in suburban Des Moines.
You likely know by now that King once again garnered attention from across the country when he said he wondered whether humanity would have survived to this point if pregnancies that resulted from incest and rape had always been aborted.
The firestorm was immediate and widespread. National media outlets picked up the story. King’s political challengers, both Republicans and Democrats, weighed in, as did presidential candidates, other political leaders and countless advocacy groups. Twitter was afire with talk about the comment.
I found it interesting because King was attempting to make a point about anti-abortion laws with which many Republican conservatives agree. While some support laws that aim to reduce or eliminate abortions but allow for them in the case of rape or incest, there are many who believe abortion should never be legal, even in those cases.
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Steve King is one such Republican, and he was saying so while addressing the conservative group. Had he left it at that, nobody would have taken note of his comments. But then he asked, “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?”
That’s what got people’s attention, and after that his original point became an afterthought to most.
It’s worth noting that the next day King took to Twitter to defend his comments against politicians of all political stripes who had criticized him. But King defended his pro-life, anti-abortion stance — not his comments about humanity’s survival.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.