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Live By the Gotcha, Die By the Gotcha has been ambushing Democratic politicians and Obama administration officials with leading questions in the hope of forcing out awkward answers. But CNS' gotcha crew met its match in Barney Frank.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 1/27/2011

One of the ways has been attacking the Obama administration and Democratic politicians is by videotaping them as CNS reporters ambush them with questions that are seemingly designed solely to catch them off-guard and giving an awkward or embarrassing that would provide fodder for the CNS website and reposting to other right-wing websites.

CNS has actually been doing this since 2007, as ConWebWatch detailed at the time, and it has been developing it since. For example, a May 22, 2008, article by Penny Starr (the date on the article is wrong; it got an incorrect date when it was moved to a new database, as did many other older CNS stories) made a big deal out of how three Democratic Hispanic members of Congress "were not aware of a recent State Department travel alert warning Americans about military-like 'combat' along the southern U.S. border in Mexico, where Americans are being kidnapped and murdered." That's a misleading attempt to attack the lawmakers as out of touch; buried in the article are statements from all three members of Congress questioned -- Reps. Robert Menendez, Luis Guiterrez and Hilda Solis -- that make it clear that, contrary to what the lead of her article suggests, they are all aware of the problem of border violence.

In the past year, however, CNS seems to have ramped up its gotcha game.

A May 6 article by Edwin Mora claimed that then-House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi "said Thursday it is cheaper to treat teens for drug use than it is to interdict drugs being smuggled across the border." But Mora falsely framed his article to suggest that Pelosi doesn't support interdicting drugs at the border and endorses drug use among teens, which of course is completely false. It's wasn't until the ninth paragraph that he put Pelosi's words in their proper context: "To solve the drug problem, she said, requires reducing demand." And it wasn't until the very end that Mora noted the actual question he asked of Pelosi: "Madame Speaker, the Justice Department has reported that one in five teenagers used illicit drugs last year and that most of those drugs came across the border from Mexico. Are you committed to sealing the border against the influx of illegal drugs from Mexico and, if so, do you have a target date in mind for getting that done?"

It's a classic gotcha question, its goal being to illogically equate failing to "sealing the border" with endorsing teen drug use. Such a question penalizes any nuanced answer, and that's exactly what Mora did to Pelosi.

CNS tried to gotcha Pelosi again in August. An Aug. 3 article by Jane McGrath noted that CNS asked this of Pelosi: “You said at a recent Catholic Community Conference that your favorite word was ‘The Word, as in the word made flesh,’ and that we need to quote, ‘give voice to what that means in terms of public policy that would be in keeping with the Word.’ So, when was the Word made flesh? Was it at the Annunciation, when Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the Creed says, or was it at the Nativity when he was born of the Virgin Mary? And when did the Word get the right to life?”

When CNS deemed the answer Pelosi provided to be insufficient, it decided to press the issue further: then sent an e-mail to the speaker’s press secretary, Nadeam Elshami, seeking to clarify the speaker’s answer. The e-mail said:

“Speaker Pelosi said at a Catholic Community Conference that her favorite word was ‘the Word’ as in ‘the Word made flesh’ and that we ‘need to [give] voice to what that means in terms of public policy.’ We’d like to clarify the speaker’s position on this: Did Jesus have the right to life from the moment of conception?”

In an e-mailed response, the press secretary wrote: “The speaker answered the question. Thanks.”

The next day, McGrath reported that Republican Rep. Johnny Isakson also "declined to say whether Jesus Christ got the right to life at the moment of conception, although he did say that Jesus is his savior and he believes in him."

Another CNS gotcha target has been Obama adviser (and right-wing target) John Holdren. A Sept. 16 CNS article by Nicholas Ballasy stated that he asked Holdren: "You wrote ‘a massive campaign must be launched to restore a high quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States’ in your book Human Ecology. Could you explain what you meant by de-develop the United States?"

As Media Matters noted, this quote was plucked from a book Holdren co-wrote in 1973 -- nearly 40 years ago -- and was asked apropos of nothing.

CNS has also flipped the gotcha on its head, in which gotcha questions for its political enemies become softballs for its Republican friends. CNS asked various Republican members of Congress the same question Pelosi got -- whether Jesus had a right to life from the moment of conception -- and they each got fawning articles applauding them for answering yes.

CNS has even tried to turn Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents into fishing expeditions that can be used as gotcha attacks:

  • A May 21 article by Fred Lucas stated that the Federal Communications Commission "says it has 'no records' of any communication either 'to or from' its chairman that mentions Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham or Michael Savage," but that "a letter about 'hate speech in the media' specifically citing “radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh” was in fact sent to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski by a coalition of liberal groups last fall." Lucas then uncritically quoted right-wing activist and voting suppression expert Hans von Spakovsky baselessly speculating that because the FCC wouldn't release internal discussions about " local ownership rules" as CNS sought in its FOIA request, FCC officials are trying to "avoid a document trail."
  • Also in May, CNS filed another broad FOIA request seeking records regarding Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan's work on health care issues while solicitor general. In a June 28 article, CNS editor in chief Terry Jeffrey complained that the White House had "delayed responding" to the request because it "did not understand what was meant in the FOIA request by the term 'the administration’s health-care reform plan" or "whether the term 'any particular case' in the FOIA request actually meant 'any particular case' or only referred to cases focusing on health care."

But politicians are starting to get wise to CNS' gotcha tactics. Ballasy tried to go back to the well by once again ambushing Holdren with a quote from a book he wrote nearly four decades ago, but Holdren refused to play along, as Ballasy's Sept. 30 article reported:

John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said “have a nice day” and otherwise declined to comment on Tuesday when asked about a statement he made that worldwide redistribution of wealth is “absolutely essential” in order to provide all human beings with a decent life.

“Redistribution of wealth both within and among nations is absolutely essential, if a decent life is to be provided for every human being,” Holdren wrote along with Paul and Anne Ehrlich in the final chapter of Human Ecology, a book the three co-authored in 1973. Paul Ehrlich is also author of the famous 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. Holdren, President Obama’s top science adviser, advises the administration on issues that include health care and climate change. approached Holdren to ask him about his statement on redistributing wealth after he gave a speech on “Science, Technology, and Sustainable Economic Growth” at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

When started asking Holdren about the statement, he said, “I’m not talking to you. Bye bye. Have a nice day.” said: “You said in your book Human Ecology, quote, ‘Redistribution of wealth both within and among nations is absolutely essential, if a decent life is to be provided for every human being.’”

“I hope you have a really nice day,” Holdren said as he boarded an elevator, declining further comment.

Ballasy met his true comeuppance, though, when he tried to play gotcha with Rep. Barney Frank.

CNS targeted Rep. Barney Frank with a question about the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell -- specifically, whether he thought gay and straight soldiers should shower together. This was based on a statement calling for a ban on separate showers from the Pentagon’s report on the impact of repealing DADT that CNS had previously singled out.

As the video shows, Frank saw this coming from a mile away. As Ballasy slowly sounded out the words “shower with homosexuals,” Frank let out an exaggerated gasp and said to Ballasy, “What do you think happens in gyms all over America?” After calling it a “silly issue,” Frank added, “What do you think goes wrong with people showering with homosexuals? Do you think it’s the spray makes it catching? ... We don’t get ourselves dry-cleaned.”

Frank then turned the tables on his interviewer by quizzing Ballasy: “I know you’re looking for some way to kind of discredit the policy. Do you think that gyms should have separate showers for gay and straight people? I’m asking you the question because that’s the logic of what you’re telling me. You seem to think that there’s something extraordinary about gay men showering together. Do you think gyms should have separate showers for gay people and straight people?” Ballasy wouldn’t answer, insisting that he was “just quoting the recommendation.” Frank responded: “Don’t be disingenuous. You’re quoting those you think may cause us some problems. You’re entitled to do that, but you shouldn’t hide behind your views.”

Frank again asked the question of Ballasy, who again wouldn’t answer, instead trying to change the subject: “So that’s the question you would pose to people who have an issue with that part of the report, the recommendation?” Frank made his point one more time, and that’s where the CNS ends the video.

The Dec. 21 CNS article on Ballasy’s gotcha interview ignores how Frank saw through his tactics, instead playing up the irrelevant point that Frank opposes opposite-sex soldiers showering together. But give credit to CNS for posting the video of Frank using its reporter’s gotcha tactics against him -- and thus providing other politicians with a how-to manual for the next time a CNS reporter and his or her accompanying camera pop up out of nowhere to fire a loaded question.

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