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Candidates tar legitimate press coverage with 'gotcha' epithet

As the presidential campaign season intensifies, managers for the various competitors and some of the candidates themselves have angrily turned on the moderators and the television networks that host the debates.

Predictable whining has come from the GOP front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and others over supposedly "gotcha" questions meant to pin them down on this or that statement or contention about their records. Scrutiny of Mr. Trump's past business bankruptcies and of Dr. Carson's boasts of a combative childhood on Detroit's mean streets have been cited as unfair or irresponsible.

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Mr. Trump has largely fielded his questions as an accomplished counterpuncher accustomed to such verbal assaults and has been ready, willing and able to dish out as much or more than received, in his famously bullying style.

Dr. Carson, on the other hand, has responded in his customary soft-spoken way, seemingly astonished that anyone would suggest that he, as a man of God and of celebrated autobiography, might stoop to misrepresent himself in any way. Indeed, he has joined the Republican outcry against the news media's handling of the early campaign as especially unjust, in light of the oft-declared rectitude that separates him from the pack.

On the Democratic side, front-runner Hillary Clinton, after months of insisting there was nothing to hide in her controversial emails stored on a private server, which only served to intensify the press demand for further disclosure, has begun to make herself more available to the press. Still, speculation and suspicion continue to linger given her penchant for personal privacy.

The implication among other candidate-complainers is that the purpose of press interrogation, be it by moderators of the debates or just shoe-leather reporters, is to find something to bring them and their political ambitions down.

Such a quest has come to be known as "gotcha journalism." The implication is that reporters pursue it for their own fame and fortune, hoping to match the success of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two young Washington Post staffers who broke the most crucial stories of conceit and corruption known as the Watergate Affair, leading to the presidential resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.

Of course, the Watergate case clearly was one of rooting out criminal corruption at the highest level rather than some mere political vendetta to "get" a partisan foe. The result was widely and correctly hailed as a triumph of American democracy, in which the free press played a leading and entirely legitimate role as public watch-guard. Many Nixon defenders joined him in grumbling that he had been railroaded out of office, but some of his most loyal party backers told him in the end that impeachment was his only alternative.

Pointing out all this is not to deny that in time a "gotcha" mentality did evolve among some journalistic practitioners -- eagerly encouraged by partisan politicians. Some 13 years after Watergate, Democratic candidate Gary Hart's presidential campaign was destroyed by press pursuit of allegations that he was a womanizer. That episode, however, was devoid of any official corruption of the sort that brought Nixon down and sent some of his top aides to prison.

Nevertheless, American voters are entitled to know all there is to know about a candidate's character, as well as his or her record of public service, as they weigh their votes for the next president or party presidential nominee.

Political lore holds that every mother's son (or daughter) has the right to run for the highest office. But one president who reached the Oval Office without running for it, Harry S. Truman, put it best: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!"

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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