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In the US, a "softball question" is asked because it would be intentionally easy to answer. It's not an intellectual judgement, just a question formulated to be intentionally easy for that particular person to answer.

I'm looking for a word or phrase that can be more widely understood (outside the US) that preserves that same meaning. Preferably, it would fit nicely into the form: "The best political reporters no longer ask [softball] questions."

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There's the rhetorical question that (typically) does not require an answer because the answer is obvious and doesn't need to be stated. However, rhetorical questions can also be intended as a challenge, with the implication that the question is difficult or impossible to answer. Either way, I don't think this is the answer you are after. Can't blame a man for trying, though? ;-) –  Bill Oct 5 '11 at 3:02
    
P.S. There's also the closed question, which which has a restricted range of answers, typically yes or no. Not sure if this is what you are after. –  Bill Oct 5 '11 at 3:57
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How widely understood does it need to be? –  Karl Knechtel Oct 5 '11 at 9:32
    
@Bill No, not really going for "closed question", but "rhetorical" might work. It changes the meaning subtly but I could potentially rephrase the rest of the thought to make it fit. –  Robert Cartaino Oct 5 '11 at 15:54
    
@Karl Knechtel: Typical audience for an SE blog post; industrialized, world-wide, predominantly English as a first language. –  Robert Cartaino Oct 5 '11 at 15:57
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8 Answers

The best (and non idiomatic) thing that I could think of was "safe"

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I don't know a direct synonym. If you have room for a few more words, you could add the words planted and canned to provide a contextual background or explanation for softball. (That is, could write "... no longer ask planted, canned, or safe and easy "softball" questions.")

Planted questions and canned questions frequently are softball questions in the sense of being easily answered, but the three words all have different connotations. If a politician plants a question, questions of ethics may be raised when that's discovered. The term canned is far more frequently applied to answers rather than questions, but web searches show it still being used frequently of questions.

Note, an ngrams comparison of planted/canned/softball + question shows that planted question is used far more frequently than either of the other two phrases; planted question usage has fallen in recent years, and usage of canned question risen.

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"Canned" is subtly different, but it might actually provide a better context for what I am trying to convey. Canned, softball questions. Thanks. –  Robert Cartaino Oct 5 '11 at 16:00
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"Planted" does not mean exactly the same thing. "Planted" means someone has arranged in advance for this question to be asked by someone other than themselves. A planted question MIGHT be a softball question. It might also be a hard question for which the person being asked has carefully prepared a good answer. It could be a hostile question asked of an opponent in the debate. Etc. –  Jay Oct 5 '11 at 18:15
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Oh, I meant to finish, A softball question is not necessarily planted. The asker might simply be sympathetic to the answerer and so give him an easy question, without any pre-arrangement. –  Jay Oct 5 '11 at 18:16
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The Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines a leading question as

a question so framed as to guide the person questioned in making his reply.

A softball is thrown at an interviewee in the same (if not strictly identical) spirit.

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A leading question can just as easily be (and often is) designed to make the responder look bad. –  onomatomaniak Oct 5 '11 at 21:25
    
@onomatomaniak: True; but softballs, by their nature, are leading questions designed to make the responder look good, or, at the very least, not like a total airhead. (Some politicians manage to swing and miss anyway...) –  Gnawme Oct 5 '11 at 22:19
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Non-threatening, perhaps. Favorable, perhaps.

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A leading question could be a slanted to get the answerer to say something they don't want to. So I would keep it clear and simple and use easy question.

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I don't disagree, but one could quibble that "softball question" implies something a little different from just "easy". If a reporter asked a candidate, "What time is your speech scheduled to begin?" that would likely be an easy question to answer, but it wouldn't be considered a softball. Softballs are normally understood to mean questions biased in the candidate's favor, like "Why do you think so many people from this state say they support your opponent when his policies will increase their taxes to bail out California?" –  Jay Oct 5 '11 at 18:22
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Just to throw another suggesting into the mix: you could be asking a facile question.

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The closest non-idomatic phrase I can think of is "favorably biased".

See my comment on Hugo's answer. When we say "softball", we don't just mean "easy", like "How do you spell your name?" The term implies an implied bias in favor of the person being asked. "Softball question" is generally used as the opposite of "hostile question".

Like if a reporter asks a politician, "Why should black people vote for you when you're such a racist?", that would clearly be a hostile, biased question. If he asked, "Why do you think black people aren't supporting you when your policies would create so many new jobs in black communities?" that would be a softball question, biased in the person's favor.

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You might call the questions deferential or ingratiating, under the assumption that the person asking softball questions is doing little more than toadying up to the politician.

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