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Self-Censored Questions by Career Questioners

I’ve always been intrigued by the major questions not asked by reporters at press conferences, not asked by legislators at public hearings or even the questions citizens at town meetings don’t ask public officials. It’s not that they do not know about or could not easily become informed enough about a given issue and ask substantive questions. It’s just that so many taboos are packed into these questioners’ ideological mindset, career goals or concern with what other people over them might think. Maybe it is a culturally-rooted fear of challenging entrenched power brokers.

Decades ago, I noticed that press conferences, symposia and formal studies and reports on the toll of highway traffic fatalities never mentioned the role of motor vehicle design and construction.

The focus was almost entirely on the driver, or what some auto bosses called “the nut behind the wheel.” What the drivers were driving – vehicles without seatbelts, padded dash panels, rollover and side protection from collisions, but with faulty tires and brakes or poor handling – never came up. Construction defects in vehicles were never formally recalled to be fixed by the culpable manufacturers.

Questions never asked assure that answers, solutions and public awareness will not emerge.

Today, reporters who go to the Pentagon press briefings rarely, if ever, ask about dubious test results from the unproven ballistic defense project costing taxpayers over three decades, rising to nine to ten billion dollars a year. Or when the Department of Defense is going to obey a 1992 law and provide auditable data to the Congress’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) so that DOD’s massive budget, with its waste and redundancies, can be audited.

Lengthy Congressional hearings on the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justices do not produce questions to the nominee about corporate personhood (corporations being considered people for constitutional purposes) or rampant corporate crime. Both issues are important matters for judges.

Think about all the news conferences and hearings about rescheduling marijuana, by taking it off the DEA’s Schedule I controlled substances list. Far less attention is paid to legalizing the domestic growing of industrial hemp – grown by our founding fathers – which provides food, fuel, clothing, paper, car parts and lubricants, among hundreds of other uses.

In meetings with reporters and editorial writers, politicians pledge to lower deficits and prevent waste, but almost never have to answer questions about instances of massive fraud on the taxpayers (such as corporate vendors ripping off Medicare other government programs).

With all the blather officials, such as former Rep. Tom Price (now Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services) devote to repressing medical malpractice lawsuits, when will the first reporter ask: “But Secretary Price, what are you going to do about the loss of 250,000 lives a year in our hospitals due to mishaps, incompetence, hospital-induced infections, etc. (documented by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professors last May)? What will you do to prevent the 5,000 people in America losing their lives each week because of such failures?”

Back in 2000, the great Washington Post reporter, Morton Mintz, submitted numerous questions to the major presidential candidates. No response. So a group called TomPaine.com placed an advertorial on the New York Times op-ed page with the heading “Mort Wants to Know – Hard Questions Reporters Don’t Ask.” While reporters may not ask such questions, this group understood they were certainly the kind that voters welcome. Three questions were selected, as follows:

“Do you take campaign contributions from Exxon-Mobil, ARCO and other oil companies that cheated taxpayers out of billions of dollars owed for oil pumped from public land?”

“Should Congress investigate drug pricing by companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer and Novartis, which charge Americans more for drugs that in other countries they sell for much less?”

“Rules pending in Congress would deny federal contracts to chronic corporate lawbreakers – those that repeatedly violate environmental, worker safety, tax and other laws. Where do you stand on these Rules?”

I would add one additional question to the many reporters bored with daily routine coverage of the major party candidates on the road: “What in the world keeps you from freeing your minds and asking the obvious  and important questions?”
More generally, time and again reporters do not respond to declarations and assertions by those in positions of power with two fundamental questions:

1. What is your legal authority for this decision?

2. What is your evidence to back up your claim, policy or practice?

Sure, we’re all likely to be against censorship. But let’s pay attention to the enablers of the censors – the self-censoring career questioners whose lack of inquisitiveness does the censors’ job for them.

To read stories from reporters who ask the hard questions, visit FAIR.org and projectcensored.org.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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