In My View
Asking tough questions is great journalism but…
Sometimes some journalists have asked some unusually tough questions during an interview or at a press conference or other forums which will never be forgotten by the readers or audience and also their colleagues. Those were the milestone moments in the career of those courageous journalists that made them stand out in their community.
One such journalist is Connie Chung, who served as an anchor and reporter for virtually all U.S. major television news networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC. This distinguished media personality got arare opportunity to interview first U.S. congressman Gary Condit who was widely speculated by American news media to be involved in the disappearance of Chandra Levy, a young and beautiful Washington intern in the summer of 2001.
Since that incident, Gary Condit, the congressman from California kept just quiet even in the face of opinions of many newspaper columnists and editorials that asked for his resignation. He finally agreed to break his silence by granting an interview to news anchor Connie Chung on ABC's primetime news program on August 23, 2001. And she began her interview by asking him these tough questions: "Do you know what happened to Chandra Levy?" "Did you have anything to do with her disappearance?"
After that she threw at the congressman, whose political career was effectively over following the disappearance and murder of Chandra Levy, this question: "Did you kill Chandra Levy?" "I did not," replied the congressman. Well before that interview began that evening, Americans sat down in front of their television sets and remained glued to the TV screens as long as the interview continued. An estimated 24 million Americans watched that nationally televised interview with Gary Condit conducted by ABC's Connie Chung.
She had her moments that evening and took full advantage of them capturing the spotlight. In late 1990s, Connie Chung visited Bangladesh to make a documentary on rising incidences of acid attacks on Bangladeshi women which nationally airedacross the United Statesin November 1999. For that widely acclaimed report titled "Faces of Hope" featuring two young victims of acid attacks, the famous American journalist and her entire team were honored with the Amnesty International Media Spotlight Award the following year.
In 1983, then the diplomatic correspondent of state-run Bangladesh news agency BSS and presently a freelance journalist Jehangir Hussain made his mark as the most courageous reporter of the country by asking an exceptional question to military dictator General Ershad at a news conference in Dhaka which no one could ever think about. His off-the-track question aboutpublication of the general's poems on the front page of Bangladesh's national dailies not only came as a huge embarrassment to the general but also as a great surprise to many of his own colleagues at the press conference.
Even though his question was a deviation from political issues on which the press conference primarily focused, it was extremely important in the context of what should and should not be published on the front page of national newspapers. By writing poems and having them published on page one of Bangladeshi newspapers, General Ershad sought recognition as a poet and showcase his softer side to attract people and advance his political agenda. So, Jehangir Hussain's question that embarrassed the general was appreciated by many people.
The journalist who is much more knowledgeable and professionally qualified than many existing editors of Bangladeshi newspapers put this quiz verbatim to the military ruler: "May I ask you a non-political question? No one knew that you were a poet before coming to power. Now all newspapers publish your poems on the front page. But the front page of newspaper is reserved for news, not poems. Even Bangladesh's most prominent poet Shamsur Rahmanwasn't so lucky. My question is: Has any directive been issued to publish your poems on front page of newspapers?"
Ershad had no good answer. So, he threw back a meaningless counter question at the reporter: "I do so much for the country. Will you not give me this little in return? Then the general who kept his cool throughout the conversation addressed the journalist directly: "It will not be published anymore if you want." After that day, Ershad's poems were not seen on the front page of Bangladeshi newspapers but journalist Jehangir Hussain had to pay the price for asking that question to him. Almost immediately he was transferred to the Chittagong office of BSS from its Dhaka headquarters against his will. After staying there for two years, he resigned.
By publishing General Ershad's poems on the front page of national newspapers either under pressure or in self-interests, a bunch of timid and non-professional editors compromised their editorial integrity, acted against the reputation of the national press and sold out the dignity of newspaper. At that critical time of Bangladeshi media, it was journalist Jehangir Hussain who went out of his way to restore the honor of nation's fourth estate putting his own job on the line. Kudos to him!
In November 2011, Sam Husseini, a Jordanian-Palestinian writer and political activistasked this unusually tough question to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC: "There has been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime. I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and others report of torture, detention of activists, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt, and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does your regime have other than billions of dollars and weapons?"
His exceptionally blunt question didn't go unnoticed. The executive director of the press club suspended his membership within hours. However, the ethics committee lifted his suspension just a few days later. After the reversal of the National Press Club's decision, Sam Husseini wrote on his blog: "I welcome this decision and aim to ask ever tougher and sharper questions and I hope others will as well." In an interview with The Daily Caller, Husseini said: "Raising eyebrows is good, a lot better than lowering eyelids. There is an objective reality. Real people are suffering. It should be said." He offered no apologies for asking tough questions.
And most recently -- prior to the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States -- Voice of America's senior White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara, who worked as a journalist for more than 25 years, was demoted to a general assignment reporter for asking former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a couple of questions he didn't like. After Pompeo gave a speech at the VOA, she asked him about his plan to improve America's reputation around the world and if he regretted a statement he made a few days ago that "the presidential transition would proceed smoothly into a second term for President Donald Trump." But Pompeo declined to answer her questions and left.
"It's a sad state of affairs. Instead of leaders like Pompeo paying the price, it's the journalists asking him to answer for his mistakes who get reprimanded," commented Alex Ward in an article published on vox.com on January 12 this year.
Asking tough questions to powerful people is certainly superior journalism. However, it is most likely to have consequences. Even in the United States where free press and speech are protected under the First Amendment, sometimes journalists get reprimandedfor performing their professional duty. A reporter is free to ask any question he or she likes.And aslegendary White House correspondentHelen Thomas has correctlysaid: "A tough question is not disrespectful." She covered ten U.S. presidents from Kennedy to Obama.
The writer is a Toronto-based journalist who also writes for the Toronto Sun and Canada's Postmedia Network.