Two bad things happened today. Most people probably heard about one, maybe saw a confusing Facebook status about the other, but, ultimately, and with fair certitude, cared very little about either. Both things on the surface seem fairly innocuous but, if you dig in a bit, are terrible, and dispiriting, and dangerous. They left a number of my coworkers, including my boss, helpless to a number of exercise-in-vanity type freak outs and rants on my part trying to make sense of them, clinging desperately for any other reasonable perspective I hadn’t considered. They couldn’t provide one. The first started on Wednesday night, when the third Republican presidential debate turned into a circus. The other was this afternoon when ESPN shuttered Grantland, its sister site covering both sports and pop culture. They seem unrelated, but I think that’s also inaccurate.
I didn’t know the full history of the phrase “gotcha question” until this evening when I Googled it; I honestly thought Sarah Palin invented it eight years ago when Katie Couric asked her about what newspapers and magazines she preferred. I found a Washington Post article on the subject, and we will declare that an exhaustive and thorough investigation for the purposes of brevity. Turns out, as best as anyone can find, the term cropped up in 1992 when reporters asked both Bill Clinton and Bush the elder if they’d ever had affairs. Neither wished to dignify such an insulting question or one that had nothing to do with the office they were seeking for journalists looking to catch them in a slip up just to create a story (in hindsight, Slick Willie may have had simpler motives). They labeled them “gotcha” questions, tricks of the sinister media twisting things to their own advantages. In 1999 it happened again when the media asked Dubya about potential cocaine use in his youth, another personal and pointless inquiry, but perhaps one some people may feasibly care about. He ignored it and complained about the “gotcha” questions he was facing. Then that Palin interview happened. Katie Couric asked her what she reads to get her news and she struggled to spit out “a vast variety of sources.” Earlier in that interview she had told Couric, more or less, that only rich people can travel the world or go to college without working their way through, so she had learned about other countries and societies and the geopolitical issues of the day by reading a lot. Couric’s question was another personal question, and certainly a seasoned journalist knowing when she was about to land a decisive blow, but when Palin decried that question as a “gotcha” question over the next few days, we hit a strange place in journalism. Someone had asked a natural follow up question of the prospective second most powerful human in America about where she gets her news and she had not only failed to answer it, but she vilified the asker: just another example of the media and their damn “gotcha questions.” Earlier this year we made it to the “gotcha” promised land. Donald Trump was asked about various leaders in the Middle East that pose an international policy threat to the United States. Many names were thrown at him, perhaps intentionally in quick succession. He didn’t know who any of the people were, and the next day slandered the show as out to get him, saying it was a “gotcha” question. So, to recap, we went from fishing for affairs, to looking for details about someone’s drug use from decades ago, to asking follow-up questions about someone’s personal news preferences, to asking questions about *gasp* politics. Which brings us to Wednesday night.
Wednesday night, the third Republican debate shifted from an examination of political aptitude to an outright sideshow with the candidates ganging up on the panel of moderators. Candidates embarrassed the moderators to the applause of the crowd. The moderators asked negative, inflammatory, inciting questions. Candidates began out right lying, and not in the normal hidden in the details politician way, but brazenly and proudly lying knowing there were no repercussions because they’d convinced the crowd and viewers at home the moderators were imbeciles out to get them with, you guessed it, “gotcha” questions (it was proctored by liberal outlet CNBC). The Republican party is happy to let you know it was such an embarrassment that they are justified in today’s (actual) decision to withdraw from all further debates on networks owned by NBC News. Let’s briefly ignore how insane it is for a political party to only want to hold debates if the questions asked are ones that make them sound good, and instead look at what actually happened.
A moderator asked Donald Trump if his campaign was akin to a cartoon villain. Trump called the question rude. He was right. It was phrased rudely, and idiotically. He had laid the foundation.
A moderator asked Ben Carson about his tax plan that is mathematically illogical (something Bill O’Reilly promptly did the very next night on the ‘Factor,’ for you liberal media conspiracy theorists). It was a good question. Carson didn’t like being pressed about it, and the crowd got antsy sensing his irritation.
John Kasich was egged on to attack the other candidates.
Marco Rubio was asked why he doesn’t quit his job because he keeps missing Senate votes.
Then Ted Cruz happened. Given his chance to speak, he slammed the debate as proof of the liberal media’s biases, recapping four-word summaries of the negativity in each of the questions. He demanded to talk about the actual issues. His rant was in response to a question about the debt ceiling problem, an actual issue. He did not speak about the debt ceiling. He instead claimed they were under attack from the liberal media, giving proof that the recent Democratic debate involved the candidates being asked “Which of you is more handsome and why?” If Ted watched that debate, he might have seen that Anderson Cooper dry-roasted the five Democratic candidates. His opening question to Hillary recapped her laundry list of flip-flopping on important issues, and finished with “Will you say anything to get elected?”
It got worse and worse after Cruz’s mea culpa. Candidates openly ignored the moderators, called questions “propaganda” and Chris Christie turned an (absolutely moronic) question about daily fantasy sports gambling into an evisceration of CNBC, yelling that they should be talking about things that matter, like ISIS. Please remember this debate was supposed to be entirely about the candidates economic policies. It culminated in one of the most disturbing moments I have ever been party to: a moderator asked Trump a question, quoting him. He called her a liar and said he’d never said those things. She cited the report again, and he cut her off, again called her a liar. When she asked where the report would have come from if she was lying, he responded, natch, you’re the liberal media, you probably wrote it. HUGE applause from the audience. I looked into this later. She pulled the quotes from Donald Trump’s website.
Here we are today. The RNC says the debate was nothing but “gotcha questions” and CNBC has spent two days being buried alive in reports and that ‘liberal media’ (they deserve a fair amount of it for allowing such a debacle to take place, for asking hostile questions trying to incite infighting between the candidates). They are refusing to hold further NBC debates. They will apparently only comply with networks where they can, I don’t know, pre-approve the questions? The moderators are under fire, and, as The New Yorker wrote “they weren’t prepared for candidates who called them liars, and who, by the end, were simply ignoring both questions and time limits.”
More fun? The term “gotcha” question has crossed the rubicon to now mean “things I don’t want to answer because the answer exposes me as full of shit” or “as a piece of garbage human being.” Now, the game is much simpler: if you don’t like a question, attack the asker. If you hear a quote you said that makes you look bad, scream that you never said it, and it’s all a conspiracy against you. People will believe it all. We live in a world where after debates, we have to have things called “fact-checkers” because candidates are on the stage throwing shit at the wall because they know 95% of people watching will never care about its validity (the irony is that none of that 95% reads the “fact-checking” articles). The Republicans bolster the belief in the existence of the sinister “liberal media,” while never showing any contrition, honesty or really divulging honest information, forcing said media to ask more ludicrous and inflammatory questions, all the while praying for anything of substance out of these Picassos of mistruths and smear campaigns. If you say something is a thing loud enough these days, then that’s the way it is. People willingly only hear what they want to hear, and opt to learn absolutely nothing. Journalism has essentially died, because learning something takes too long. Looking up something takes too long. Reading things longer than the average Facebook post take. Too. Long. This blog post is too long (on this we agree). Snapchat is faster. Just believing whatever Facebook post you saw, without checking to see if it’s even remotely true, is so much faster. Every bit of political information we intake today is coated in a thick paint of ignorance, and journalism is dead. Which brings me to thing two.
Today, ESPN shut down Grantland. This was not surprising. Bill Simmons, master overlord of the site, was fired by ESPN months ago for criticizing the burning tire fire of human decency that is the NFL and also a bunch of other stuff. After a few months bleeding out, they killed it today. Gone is a place to learn about music and rare whiskeys and the human experience through sumo wrestling (link at the end). Gone is a place to tell stories. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of inane garbage on there, too. But nothing is perfect. It was original, and it cared to keep writing, to deliver content that mattered in a world where everyone has decided that content that matters doesn’t matter anymore. It was important to journalism, to reporting news, to writing about news, to contributing to intelligent discourse in this hive-minded country of internet trolls who would rather throw molotov cocktails (wtf!) at a (total asshole) dentist’s office six months after he killed an awesome lion (WHAT GOOD ARE YOU ACCOMPLISHING THROWING BURNING GAS AT A BUILDING?). The Washington Post (again! twice in one blog post, nice work guys!) wrote a terrific article about why the death of Grantland is bad for everyone, namely that it let smart people write about any number of topics while focusing more on “why was the score” instead of “what was the score.” It introduced me to one of my two favorite writers on the planet. Now its gone.
Its disappearance sets a scary precedent that an outlet tried to write longform journalism on the internet was shut down after only five years by a company that employs ranting lunatics like Skip Bayless. It sets the precedent that Americans contentedly will keep watching that damn NFL, and the Vegas Strip lunatic carnival that is Sportscenter, and whatever other programming that consists of people reading sports tweets on television and arguing about them. While they’re doing so, they’ll take in 30 more FanDuel and DraftKings commercials, and round and around we go. No one will be asked to use their brains. People will desire less and less to do so. Goodbye, Grantland. Thank you for trying.
It’s late and I don’t even want people to read this at this point. In the American political arena, the average person has given up critically thinking about what they hear or see. As long as its provided to them through the filter they prefer (Matt Drudge, Rachel Maddow), well, then, that’s good enough. In sports writing, they’ve done the same. The world gets dumber, more homogenized, with worsened attention spans. The next time you see someone share or like something on Facebook, take the two seconds to check if it’s even remotely true (most aren’t). Whether its politicians or sports writing, people deserve quality of content, honesty, or, hell, at least respect in not being spoon-fed outright garbage. Unless doing so makes you look bad. Then just blame me.
Here is my favorite thing from Grantland. Read it and go on a journey.