Journalists Need to Ask Politicians Better Questions

Lame questions may be advancing lobbyists into office

A press crowd
A press crowd

BEVERLY HILLS, CA (robinsrowe.com) 2020/2/14 – In my interview with Emily Holland of Patch.com, I was asked this question: “The single most pressing issue facing our city is what, and what do you intend to do about it?” Many journalists are asking me this same single-issue question.

I’m a former NBC technical director of television broadcast news and have written for many magazines and newspapers. My parents were both newspaper journalists. This election is my first experience being interviewed as a political candidate. I’ve noticed that something unanticipated happens when journalists use the single-issue question to frame political discussion, as many of them do. Shall we talk about that?

With over 20,000 connections on LinkedIn, new people I meet are often only one degree away from someone who knows me. Curious about writer Emily Holland, this is what I see when I look at Holland’s LinkedIn page. As expected, a journalist.

Looking for articles by Holland on Patch.com, I find this:

Emily Holland, Patch Staff
Beverly Hills, CA | Jan 21
What is the one thing you would like to see change in Beverly Hills in 2020?
Neighbor in Redondo Beach, CA | Jan 23
They should pass a law which prohibits newly rich oil millionaires from the eastern Appalachias from moving here.

That’s the same question she asked me! Different answer. As anyone may judge in the example above, people who only care about one thing tend to sound prejudiced. I don’t mean to suggest they are bigots, merely that the single-issue question elicits responses that appeal to prejudice.

Does prejudice effect the Beverly Hills election? As a predominantly Jewish community, it should be no surprise most of the candidates are Jewish. What may be surprising is more than one candidate is asking Jewish voters to vote for them because they are Jewish.

Going further, one candidate says he would remove separation of church and state, would have the city council meet at a synagogue instead of at city hall. He says that if he’s elected he will remove the city attorney for rejecting such ideas, for saying it’s illegal. Although I’m no attorney, it sounds problematic to me too, per the First Amendment and Article VI, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, single-issue candidates may be motivated by something other than religion. They may be motivated by self-interest. For example, a candidate running for office who wants Beverly Hills to fully embrace cannabis doesn’t say much about his family being in that business.

I too favor improving cannabis distribution in Beverly Hills, and not because it will benefit me. I’m not in that business. Am not a customer. I look at it from the point of view that the city should be getting tax revenue that’s going to other cities for having businesses that deliver cannabis in Beverly Hills.

A motivation for single-issue candidates may be money. The city hall incumbents I’m challenging are funded by significant campaign contributions from real estate developers. During this election, $200,000 is being spent on branding to try to keep the incumbents in power. Of course, after the election these donors will expect favors in return. I don’t accept donations from developers or from anyone. I can fairly represent everyone.

If instead of politicians, journalists were interviewing say personal shoppers or stylists, would we ask such a trite single-issue question in an effort to rate their value?

For example, would we ask a personal shopper which article of clothing she would choose to wear if she could only have one? Or, if a stylist could only buy clothing from one store, which brand would she choose?

Everyone understands enough about shopping to see the absurdity of such questions. While her answer could be entertaining, nobody imagines it relevant. From reading interviews with Hollywood stylists, we all know that the greats pull together an amazing ensemble from many sources, that handling complexity with panache is the essence of the job.

Journalists are better at interviewing stylists than at interviewing political candidates. That’s weird. In both cases, the great ones know how to put together an ensemble that’s greater than the individual pieces.

Framing the issues to extract simple-minded answers to complex problems elicits bigotry and elevates special interests. Unintentionally, journalists are empowering a dysfunctional political system that advances single-issue candidates into office. There’s a word in the dictionary for what to call a single-issue proponent. That’s a lobbyist.

As a journalist myself, I say that as a group we need to ask candidates smarter questions, to stop empowering lobbyists and special interests in politics.

I’m Robin Rowe, a candidate running for Beverly City Council. I don’t accept contributions from developers or from anyone. I don’t do paid political advertising. I don’t plaster everybody’s yards with “free” yard signs paid for by special interests. I’m #1 on the ballot in the March 3rd, 2020, election. See you there.