The News Tip: Don't Ask Them If They're Running

Originally published on October 3, 2011 9:12 am

As the field of Republican presidential candidates jostle against each other in straw polls and debates, there are rumors that the field is not done growing. This past week, the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, was in the spotlight. Headlines were written about his potential to run for the highest office in the land, but in the end, he left things more than ambiguous.

NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, has this advice for journalists: Don't ask political figures if they're running for president.

"It's a fair question to ask, but you're not going to get an answer," he tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish. "These guys choreograph these things well in advance."

Moreover, Folkenflik says, spending time on the candidate's intentions to run can take away from discussion about where the nation's headed. Journalists can appear tough by pressing their interviewees, "but it's not about something substantive."

There's more going on in politics and policy than "the next White House win," he says.

Can you point out an example within the last generation where a major candidate made an unplanned announcement to run for president? Share it with us on Facebook.

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But if the answer doesn't change, what do reporters get out of asking? We put the question to NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik, who brings us our News Tip for the week. David, welcome.


CORNISH: So, what is the News Tip this week?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, first, I have a question for you, Audie: are you running for president?





CORNISH: No, really.

FOLKENFLIK: Never? You're a young women. You ruling it out?

CORNISH: Yeah, I'm ruling it out.

FOLKENFLIK: So, how inane is that question? Today's News Tip is don't ask political figures if they're running for question. (unintelligible)...

CORNISH: OK. Wait, wait, wait - I'm going to stop you right there because people ask this question all the time and it's a perfectly fair question to ask at the height of election season.

FOLKENFLIK: It's a fair question to ask but you're not going to get an answer. These guys choreograph these things well in advance. Producers and candidates' handlers all arrange in advance if you're going to announce it, you're going to know that ahead of time. So, you're not going to trick somebody into doing this. This isn't substantive. And meanwhile, what you're not doing is pressing them on where they think actually the nation's politics and policies should be headed. You know, this is really the appearance of tough. I'd like to give you a couple of examples. First, I guess we'll start with Senator John Thune. He announced early this year he would not be running for president and yet this summer, when he was on "Meet the Press" on NBC with David Gregory to talk about policy across the table from a democratic senator, here's what David Gregory had to ask him:


DAVID GREGORY: Senator Thune, are you still thinking about running for president?

JOHN THUNE: I'm not. I made that decision. I'm comfortable with it.

GREGORY: So, and to shorten that statement, you're not running.

THUNE: I am not running.

GREGORY: Will you consider the vice presidency?

FOLKENFLIK: So, look, you know, it wasn't the only question Gregory had but he wanted a Shermanesque statement. And that's, of course, William Tecumseh Sherman, who made clear, you know, he would never, ever run for office. And if he did and happened to be elected, he would never, ever serve. I'm not sure we learned a lot about John Thune from that exchange. You know, similarly, Katie Couric then with CBS News at the end of last year, she was interviewing Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York City about politics and policy, particularly about economics, and here's what she had to ask him as well.


KATIE COURIC: What might ultimately compel you to throw you into the presidential ring?

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Oh, there's nothing. I'm not going to run for president, period, end of story.


BLOOMBERG: I think at my age ever is the easy thing to say.

COURIC: Really? So, this videotape is not going to come back to haunt you?


FOLKENFLIK: I mean, you could hear at the end the desperation in Katie Couric's voice hoping to ring some, like, at least equivocation out of it. There again, she seems to be holding his feet to the fire but it's not about something substantive. If Governor Chris Christie, if John Thune, if Mike Bloomberg, if anyone, changed their mind, it would be OK.

CORNISH: But you don't want to be the reporter who doesn't ask that obvious question because then the next reporter does and everyone looks at you like, well, you know, why didn't you?

FOLKENFLIK: We're at a point in political coverage where there are so many news organizations that pretty much what you want to do is differentiate yourself, not ask the same question everybody else is. I think that it also represents kind of the cynical view that the only thing happening in politics and policy is this grasping for the biggest brass ring of all, the next White House win. And I think that suggests that there's nothing done of any importance in the corridors of Congress or in 50 state capitals, which I think is counter to how tens or even hundreds of millions of Americans live their lives.

CORNISH: So, David, the takeaway this week is:

FOLKENFLIK: Don't ask political figures if they're going to run for president. They'll tell you when they want to tell you.

CORNISH: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks so much for speaking with us.


CORNISH: So, here's a News Tip challenge: if you can point out an example within the last generation where a major candidate made an unplanned announcement to run for president, let us know on Twitter. Our handles are @DavidFolkenflik and @NPRAudie.


CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.