No Need to Apologize, AP

A reporter gets loud, and we like it

It’s a little disconcerting when the AP reports, in its third-person voice and dispassionate tone, about itself. You can’t help but think of Bob Dole, robotically repeating lines about “Bob Dole’s tax cuts” and “Bob Dole’s peanut butter.”

I mention this because one of the stories the AP wires sent out today is headlined, “Romney and AP Reporter Exchange Words.” It’s the classic, journalistic role-reversal in which the reporter becomes the story—in which the behind-the-scenes observer is the one who makes the scene—and refers, as you probably guessed, to yesterday’s already-infamous Romney press conference at a Staples store in Columbia, SC—which, with the help of the eminently viral video that resulted from it, generated much buzz yesterday. Here’s part of the increasingly heated exchange, courtesy of the self-referential AP:

Speaking at a business supply store in Columbia, S.C., Romney was telling reporters, “I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign. I don’t have lobbyists that are tied to my—” when AP writer Glen Johnson interrupted.

“That’s not true,” Johnson said. “Ron Kaufman’s a lobbyist.” Kaufman, chairman of communications firm Dutko Worldwide, is a frequent presence in the Romney campaign.

“Did you hear what I said? Did you hear what I said, Glen?” Romney asked. “I said I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign, and he’s not running my campaign.”

“He’s one of your senior advisers,” Johnson said.

“He’s an adviser,” Romney replied, “and the person who runs my campaign is Beth Myers, and I have a whole staff of deputy campaign managers, and —”

Johnson interrupted again. “Ron Kaufman is just there as window dressing? He’s a potted plant on your plane?”

Romney called Kaufman a friend and unpaid adviser and repeated, “I do not have lobbyists running my campaign.”

As the article also noted, “the blogosphere immediately lit up over the exchange.” And one of those lights, in particular, got my attention: in today’s Huffington Post, the normally right-on Rachel Sklar has a surprising condemnation of Johnson’s behavior in interrupting the conference, deeming it “heckling” and calling it “unprofessional.” The piece suggests, though does nothing to prove the assertion, that the outburst can be attributed to the fact that Johnson, like his fellow Romney-trailers, is biased against the former governor:

Let’s imagine for a moment that it was a reporter calling out John McCain for an inconsistency, or Barack Obama. Probably wouldn’t happen, for a variety of reasons, but one of those reasons is that neither Obama nor McCain drive the press corps crazy, and seeing either of them thwarted doesn’t elicit a secret cheer from same. I get the frustration, but isn’t the press under an obligation to be as neutral to the candidates they hate as they are to the candidates they like?

But, for all that Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom is clearly a wanker for telling Johnson “don’t be argumentative with the candidate” he was right to call him out for not acting professionally. There’s the job you do, and then there’s how you do it. On the campaign trail and everywhere else, they both matter.

Not acting professionally—seriously? Wasn’t Johnson, in calling a spade a spade, just doing his job? Sure, his tone was combative. And sure, he interrupted Romney. Miss Manners might not approve. (Johnson, to be sure, made his interruptions while sitting on the linoleum floor of a Staples store, legs spread in front of him and computer teetering on his lap; Miss Manners gave up on campaign-trail reporters long ago.) But, last I heard, a reporter isn’t paid to be polite; he’s paid to report the truth. If Romney is telling an untruth—or a half-truth, or a modified truth, whatever euphemism you want to use—Johnson is right to question it. And if he questions it loudly, or even almost rudely—then so be it. As Dan Kennedy wrote on Media Nation,

Romney is proving to be something of an ethical test for journalists. When a candidate lies repeatedly, as Romney has, should a journalist maintain objectivity and refrain from saying the obvious? Or does he or she have an ethical obligation to point out that the liar is lying again? I’d argue the latter.

I’d argue the same. The most interesting part of the video to watch, for my money, wasn’t Johnson, but candidate Romney—and, specifically, Romney’s reaction to the questions Johnson was asking. The candidate seemed surprised that Johnson was questioning his assertions. And angry about the follow-ups.

Let me repeat: a journalist questioning him made Romney surprised and angry. Which is telling—and I don’t mean about the candidate.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.