Suppose we lived in a world in which reporters asked politicians to explain the grounds on which they believe what they purport to believe; in which they did so regularly at press conferences and in presidential debates—
• why, for example, they are “skeptical” about the presence of climate change that virtually all scientists think is in significant measure the product of human activity;
• whether they are equally skeptical of scientific arguments about, say, genetic modification, the design of wing shapes or drone technology;
• in other words, on what basis they pick and choose their scientific arguments;
• or why (if they are Republican) they believe that jobs are produced when taxes are lowered, in the light of the fact—reported by a notorious Communist newspaper called The Wall Street Journal—that fewer jobs were created under George W. Bush’s administrations than under any Democratic administration preceding his;
• or why they believe that government regulations inhibit the creation of jobs, in the light of significant evidence that small businesses do not claim that they are failing to produce jobs because they are tied in knots by government regulation.
And so on. Suppose, in other words, that politicians were taken to be speakers of propositional statements, not just self-serving robots whose job is to say anything they like to get elected, to “position” themselves in relation to other “positions” and get out of press conferences unscathed. Suppose that reporters went into press conferences not only with the expectation that politicians state their opinions, or words that they expect to be taken as rationally grounded opinions, but that they will give reasons for those opinions, and that these reasons will be matched against other reasons that others hold for contrary views. Suppose that the new expectation was that language is more than an occasion to trot out the talking points of the day, or a way to say “I’m terrific” or “my opponents are idiots.” Suppose the new expectation was that people actually were pressed to make sense of contrary arguments and difficult evidence.
Suppose that apprentice reporters tried out for their jobs by posing such questions of more seasoned reporters in the newsroom. People who apply for academic jobs often teach sample classes, predicated on the expectation that their work will include a good deal of teaching. Reporting is, in no small measure, the art of asking questions. Shouldn’t reporters demonstrate their knowhow?
It wouldn’t turn sows’ ears into silk purses overnight. It wouldn’t guarantee that politicians know what they’re talking about. But it would give the public a surrogate inside the Beltway. It would make all the talk about holding politicians accountable something more than self-congratulatory First Amendment after-dinner talk at banquets where journalists present each other with awards. Wouldn’t it now?
And now, back to the real world.