Have you ever, in your line of work, had someone threaten to throw you off a balcony? That happened to a New York City television reporter the other night, and the one doing the threatening was a U.S. congressman. The episode itself–and the congressman’s first attempt at an “apology”–demonstrates a phenomenal misunderstanding of the critical role journalists play in exercising their First Amendment duty to keep our lawmakers honest.
First the episode itself. After the President’s State of the Union message, NY1 reporter Michael Scotto conducted an on-camera interview with Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) in front of what appeared to me to be the third-floor balcony of the Cannon House Office Building rotunda. Scotto asked for the congressman’s response to the President’s speech. Grimm replied with his Republican talking points. And then Scotto did his job. He asked Grimm about a criminal investigation Grimm is facing regarding his campaign finances.
Grimm stormed off, then returned. Off camera, but clearly audible, Grimm told Scotto: “You ever do that again, I’ll throw you off the [expletive deleted] balcony… I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.” Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri wrote an excellent summary of the incident and the aftermath.
To me the story is not the fact that there is a member of Congress who lost his temper. I’ve been around Congress for 25 years, and I tell anyone who will listen that the U.S. House is truly representative of America. Think of everyone you know in your life–hero and nut-job–and there’s someone in the House of Representatives who matches that description. No, the story here is what Grimm revealed in his first attempt at a public apology. He attacked the reporter’s professionalism:
I was extremely annoyed because I was doing NY1 a favor by rushing to do their interview first in lieu of several other requests. The reporter knew that I was in a hurry and was only there to comment on the State of the Union, but insisted on taking a disrespectful and cheap shot at the end of the interview, because I did not have time to speak off-topic. I verbally took the reporter to task and told him off, because I expect a certain level of professionalism and respect, especially when I go out of my way to do that reporter a favor. I doubt that I am the first Member of Congress to tell off a reporter, and I am sure I won’t be the last. [Emphasis added]
Part of a journalist’s job is to ask tough questions, the kind of questions the interview subjects may not want to answer. It’s possible Scotto was told Grimm wouldn’t agree to an interview unless Scotto didn’t ask about the federal investigation. It’s possible Scotto agreed to those terms.
If you are a reporter and you have a public servant on live television, and your television audience is that public servant’s constituents, and you don’t take the opportunity to ask about a criminal investigation into that public servant’s doings, I would argue that is unprofessional.
Grimm didn’t have to answer the question. He could have said “Michael, my focus is on my constituents. I believe a lot of what I heard from the President tonight could harm the well-being of those constituents. They elected me to look out for them here in Washington, and that is what I intend to do.” And then he could have left, and stayed gone, rather than returning to engage in a verbal confrontation.
My background is probably important at this point. I spent ten years as an investigative reporter. My questions made a lot of people uncomfortable. I was yelled at. I was threatened. My editor received more than one call asking for me to be fired. But I did my job. My reporting led to congressional hearings. It led to government reforms in the way certain agencies did business and handled taxpayer money. And my editor never fired me.
I have now spent ten years in public relations. I have encountered a fair amount of unprofessionalism from my former colleagues in the Fourth Estate. I have been yelled at. I have been threatened. And yet I have continued to view reporters as performing a noble mission, keeping those they cover honest and accountable.
Grimm’s distorted definition of journalistic professionalism–that a reporter’s job is to only do what the interview subject wants–is pervasive. A PR person is constantly encouraged to get their client media mentions, and yet those clients are occasionally apoplectic when only a part of what they said in an interview is quoted; when the reporter has the audacity to include divergent points of view in the story; or when the copyeditor wrote a headline that doesn’t mirror the headline of the press release that led to the interview.
The sad truth is that many who rely on public relations officials to tell their stories hold reporters in little regard. And, unfortunately, the clients often also hold public relations professionals in little regard. And, perhaps even more unfortunately, public relations officials often hold reporters in little regard.
Reporters don’t always make it easy to defend them. There are good reasons why they are often held in very low regard in public opinion polls, often as low or lower than the people Scotto covers, members of Congress. (That’s pretty low.) But let’s put their work in context. They are working harder than ever now, as paid media is pulled out to sea like forgotten driftwood by the growing riptide of “free” digital content. They toil in their jobs while earning far less money than the vast majority of the people they interview. And they can claim something most of us can’t, that their job is the direct exercise of a vision of our Founding Fathers, enshrined in our Constitution.
I will continue to curse under my breath when I see or read an example of shoddy journalism (particularly the increasing introduction of the reporter’s bias into the story, which modern media’s push for “niche” markets unfortunately encourages). I will continue, as a PR professional, to present my clients in the best possible light, which includes occasionally asking for conditions in exchange for access. (It never hurts to ask.) And I will continue to subscribe to paid media, as long as the opportunity is afforded to me.
And I will also continue to, whenever it is appropriate, to take a moment to thank a reporter for their service to our democracy.