by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
April 4, 2005
PETTY THIEVES, POLITICIANS AND 'GOTCHA' JOURNALISM
LOS ANGELES -- A few weeks ago, a local television station decided to investigate reports that parking attendants were stealing from customers' automobiles. They outfitted test cars with hidden cameras, handed the cars off to unsuspecting valet parking crews and secretly watched as the attendants rifled through glove boxes. They recorded on videotape as the attendants pocketed stolen money. One of the thieves took something in excess of a hundred dollars from a center console and stuffed it down his left sock.
The idea of the "sting" is nothing new. Another example: A couple of years ago, one local tv station did a very nice job exposing health inspectors who were soliciting bribes from restaurant owners. The hidden camera and microphone trick worked particularly well, as shop owners made their payments to corrupt government agents in full view of the camera.
It's what happened next in each of these stories that is the subject of interest.
It's what I call the "gotcha" scene. In each case, the subject of the sting is confronted on camera. He is invited to watch the taped evidence of his crime while a self-righteous reporter asks something like, "We have you on tape stealing from this car. So what do you have to say about it?"
This is about the most inane question it is possible to ask, but time and again we hear something of the sort as the tv reporter exults triumphantly over his prey.
It may be no surprise that the responses are fairly tame. The thieves and bribe-takers look nervous, sometimes deny everything, often just walk away (only to be chased down and surrounded by the camera crew), and occasionally admit guilt. Sometimes they even apologize.
There may be other sorts of responses but, if so, we don't get to see them. Television is a highly edited (or at least editable) medium, so if the crooks and thieves have ever pulled guns on the crews or used particularly colorful language, we have been spared the experience. What is left is some poor slob caught with his arm stuck right up to the elbow in the figurative cookie jar, and there is nothing for him to do but squirm.
It's not a pretty sight.
We may consider what the real point of the exercise is. At a very superficial level, the confrontation scene is the modern staging of a morality play: If you do bad things, then you will be caught and punished. There may be a bit of truth to this, but I suspect that it is not the main thrust.
The more credible explanation is that the gotcha scene is an exercise in petty sadism designed to be enjoyed by the viewers for just that effect.
The supporting evidence is clear. "Reality" tv, from Jerry Springer and Judge Judy to the real-life stings we have been discussing are all designed to show us unattractive people being humiliated. We get to watch as they are rudely lectured, have their worst secrets exposed to the world, fight their former lovers in public and try to flee from prying newsmen.
Petty sadism is the core value. When it comes to the thieving valets and extorting health inspectors, we already have convincing evidence of guilt. There is no purpose in asking the subject if he did it except to watch him suffer public embarrassment.
This is not to say that these exercises are entirely lacking in merit, but one would have to concede that they lack functionality as a retributive device. When you think about all the parking attendants stealing from cars and all the government agents who have pocketed bribes, then consider that only two or three of each were caught on tape, it is obvious that this is not as effective a deterrent as the tv announcers would like to suggest.
The clincher in this argument involves the amount of time that is taken in these gotcha episodes. In a news program that fails to mention the national debt, the trade deficit or the proposed negotiations over Iranian nuclear research, we are treated to interminable minutes of the reporter taunting a petty thief. Obviously the producers feel that this is giving the public what it wants.
Amusingly enough, once we go beyond petty criminals the other main target for the media's "gotcha" attacks is that class we refer to as the politicians. It may be cheap humor to suggest that consideration of petty criminality automatically leads to thoughts about politicians, but that is in effect how the media treat the subject.
The same petty sadism comes into play, only here it is more characteristic of the reporters than of the viewers. As an example, let's consider the most recent of the Los Angeles mayoral debates, held not long ago at California State University Northridge. It is selected for discussion here not because it was in any way unique, but because it was so typical. The illustrative topic we shall consider involves immigration, but it could just as well have been taxes, welfare, prisons or affirmative action.
The debate featured the two finalists for the May runoff election, incumbent James Hahn and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa. Early in the proceedings, one of the panelists challenged the candidates to verbalize their positions on illegal immigration. This is the political version of the gotcha question because there is no way that a candidate can answer it honestly and not lose votes.
The political calculation is simple. Some people want the laws enforced rigorously, others want them enforced mildly or not at all. People tend to have strong feelings on the subject. The best strategy that a politician can adopt is the non-answer, which both candidates delivered flawlessly.
Here's the gist of what each said, slightly paraphrased but true to its substance: The federal government should enforce the immigration laws at the border, but Los Angeles should continue its humane policies with regard to people who are already here. The city should continue the policy specified in its "Special Order 40," which instructs the police department not to question people about their immigration status during the ordinary course of police business.
The illogic of the answer given by both candidates is breathtaking. We are told that the problem created by the illegal immigration situation is so serious that we must ask the federal government to take action, but that the problem is not serious enough to take action within our own city limits. It is self-contradictory at the core.
At the same time, it is the politicians' answer because it promises on the one hand a little ritual gesturing while promising on the other hand that nothing will come of it.
The interesting part was what followed the exchange by the candidates, which was - nothing.
The moderator, a senior news anchor, let it ride. The panelists failed to follow up. Nobody pushed the pertinent question, which would be whether the candidates favor deporting sizable numbers of people who currently live and work in our city. It is a hard question, but it cuts to the concerns held by large numbers of people on both sides of the issue.
Instead, we observed news people content with the watered-down inquiry. The "gotcha" element was still there, expressed as a triumphant expression on the face of the questioner, the look that comes from making someone else uncomfortable while avoiding discomfort oneself.
Once again, we may ask what the point of the exercise actually was, and once again, we are entitled to find fault with the way the media representatives handled their questioning.
The failure by the media representatives, print and television alike, to press the candidates on their collective illogic was frustrating to say the least. It raises the issue as to why this is the case.
I think there are two major elements of this failure. The first is just the standard journalistic cynicism: Reporters understand that politicians don't like to answer certain questions honestly, but have stock, well-memorized responses that are calculated to cause them the least damage. The other concern, more troubling, is that reporters who share the same ambivalence as the audience give in to that ambivalence by not pressing for clearer answers.
The latter hypothesis is more bothersome, because it implies that reporters are themselves often incapable of getting beyond the taboos that limit political discussion. Instead, the panelists on these televised debates ask the "gotcha" question as a sort of macho test they must pass, but then accept the non-answer in return.
It is a double insult: The question is couched to make the reporter look brave and defiant, by parts the inquiring professional and the bullying tyrant, while the subsequent silence is part of the unspoken understanding that no real harm will come to the politician from the exchange.
What is missing is the intrepid reporter who would offer up an honest answer each time a politician gives a non-answer. But that would violate the rules of the game.