Update: in the wake of this and other recent KGUN9 reports, ALIPAC has redoubled its attacks on KGUN9 News. For the latest, click this link.
Notes by: Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director
OK, kids, get out your No. 2 pencils. Time for a pop quiz.
If a journalist asks a tough question of conservative politician, that journalist is:
A. Doing her job.
B. A biased liberal.
C. A starry-eyed liberal.
D. A tree-hugging liberal.
E. A bleeding heart liberal.
F. A flaming liberal.
G. A member of the liberal media conspiracy.
H. A liberal idiot.
I. Options B-H.
In the wake of Wednesday's dustup between KGUN9 News and the campaign of GOP Congressional contender Jesse Kelly, a surprising number of KGUN9 viewers chose option "A." I say "surprising" because, historically, viewer comments posted to KGUN9.com and KGUN9's Facebook page have tended to skew toward the right.
The flap began when KGUN9 News posted a preview story on KGUN9.com looking ahead to Wednesday's pre-recorded studio interview with Kelly. The preview noted that during the recording session, Kelly's campaign spokesman, John Ellinwood, stopped the interview in outraged reaction to a tough question anchor Jennifer Waddell had posed. The question, which came from a KGUN9 viewer, asked Kelly to explain why he had accepted an endorsement from a controversial anti-illegal immigration group known as ALIPAC in his last campaign. Kelly was able to calm Ellinwood down and continue the interview, but then ducked the question.
After the session, Ellinwood continued his verbal assault in the hallway and in KGUN9's lobby, jabbing his finger in Waddell's face, accusing her of unprofessional conduct and using words like "trash" and "sleaze" to describe the question.
Then, when KGUN9 News posted its preview story, Ellinwood called the newsroom to continue the attack, and in retaliation canceled a 3:00 PM interview with Kelly.
KGUN9 News duly reported this. Later in the day, the Kelly campaign relented and called back to re-schedule the interview.
It's a fact of life in 21st century politics that some candidates tend to be over-handled by their campaign staffs. No matter what the question, such micro-managed candidates tend to answer with a prefab statement reflecting the campaign's main talking points for the month, week, day or hour. This is a process known as "staying on message."
You might also call it the "Chatty Cathy Effect." Any question of any kind on any topic might serve to pull a figurative ring on the candidate's back, resulting in a replay of the candidate's pre-recorded and officially approved central campaign themes.
You could see this effect during the KGUN9 studio interview. When asked why he had accepted that ALIPAC endorsement in 2010, Kelly finally responded, "This election is about jobs, and the economy, and lower gas prices." He then pronounced the ALIPAC topic "out of bounds."
You could see the effect again even more dramatically Wednesday night, when KGUN9 reporter Marcelino Benito asked Kelly whether he intended to accept this year's renewed ALIPAC endorsement. Here is a transcript of that conversation:
Benito: "Do you plan on accepting that endorsement this time around?"
Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lower gas prices using American energy, lower taxes, and creating jobs."
Benito: "Do you plan on accepting that endorsement?"
Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lower taxes, lowering gas prices using American energy, and creating jobs."
Benito: "So it that a yes or a no?"
Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lowering gas prices, creating jobs, and lowering gas prices using American energy."
Benito: "So no comment?"
Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lowering gas prices, creating jobs, and lowering taxes."
If you're curious to know how people might respond to rote answers delivered in this fashion, it will be worth your while to play the unedited video of the exchange, available in the upper left corner of this page. It's also worth noting that the reaction you'll hear was from people wearing Kelly t-shirts.
Why doesn't Kelly want to answer the question? Does he find the allegations made by some that ALIPAC is an extremist group to be embarrassing? Does he regret his 2010 decision to seek, and then accept, ALIPAC support? Did that decision come back to bite him him in the fundament? Or is he simply following campaign discipline, sticking to his message and avoiding distractions?
Only Kelly knows for sure, and he ain't sayin'.
And that is his right. By exercising it, he's done nothing wrong. Journalists can't make candidates answer questions. Nor should they be able to. Voters are left to simply note the candidate's response, or lack thereof, and then make use of that information in whatever way they wish. That, too, is how the democratic process in America is supposed to work.
As for the accusations of unprofessional conduct -- Mr. Ellinwood, what unprofessional conduct by journalists looks like is this: treating candidates with kid gloves, or failing to ask probing questions, or allowing themselves to be intimidated into silence by a handler's hallway hissy fit. You might make a note of that for future reference before your next decision to jab your finger in a reporter's face or to cancel an interview in retaliation for questions you don't like.
That's how we see it. Here is what some of our viewers had to say. (Update: this story continues to evolve. See the updated information following the viewer comments.)
Lila Sorensen -- "Not particularly in favor of Jesse Kelly but the man is entitled to some peace so that he can conduct an interview for his supporters and present his views."
Junior Amador -- "All politicians are liars and crooks and the campaign ads on TV are annoying, always accusing the other of doing something. That's why I don't vote. Nothing changes."
John Kimbell -- "KGUN9 has a reputation for being left wing and not prone to impartial reporting, so the question was probably seen as an attempt at a character assassination of Jesse Kelly."
Desiree Poire -- "It’s not about left or right. Why do people always say that about either side when something is stated that they don’t like??? It’s about the facts."
Kim Messier -- "I don't care what party he's affiliated with. Jesse Kelly is one of the most offensive politicians to come down the pike in a long time. He'll represent Arizona just about as well as Russell Pierce did. Why are the majority of Arizona politicians so embarrassing??"
Rob Roberts -- "See, above, where Mr. Kimbell says 'KGUN9 has a reputation of being left wing and not prone to impartial reporting'- according to whom?? This is the problem with political issues. Opinion, is not fact. Just because some one or two people or whomever believe KGUN9 left wing, etc., doesn't make it a fact."
Lola Brand -- "I agree with John Kimbell's assessment. Seen enough of KGUN9 News coverage and bias on topics not to agree. I share his opinion."
Erica Anderson - "Kgun 9 is owned by Disney, right??? They cater to Democrats. They will NEVER be fair to Republicans."
Paul St George - "Jessie has my vote. He did last time and he'll get it again this time too. You freakin' Libs had your day and your candidate ain't nothing but a weak carbon copy of the last one."
Adam McAnally - "I think everyone should chalk this one up to the pressures and stress from working on an intense campaign in a very negative election. Focus on the answers Jesse gives and not a sideshow which really doesn't affect how I and hopefully most people will be voting."
Edward Moreno -- "If someone like John McCain (Whom I do not like) and members of the Republican party accused ALIPAC of having ties to white supremacists, then how is this question out of bounds? Specifically, when the ALIPAC renewed its endorsement of Kelly (this week.) The blame is Kelly's. If he wishes to open his mouth and let people know how he really feels, so be it. Don't cry about it and deflect blame to others when you're on record for saying it."
Tanya Hoffmann -- "To say that question is out of bounds is ridiculous. Clearly he did not want to answer it. Yes, he has something to hide. Republicans want all women barefoot and pregnant and they are going to take this country down in flames."
Larry Kovac - "Jennifer, I thought you handled all that very professionally. Good job."
Bj Jeffrey -- "All I want to know is what side of the coin is he on? To me, that doesn't appear to be a difficult question to answer. I'm not about drama, just answer the question."
Carol Francesca Hohman Graffeo -- "Thank you Jennifer Waddell for following through on your question posed to candidate Jesse Kelly on this evening's 5 o'clock news. We need more journalists like you on the job."
Richard W Jones Jr. -- "When you are being interviewed you take the questions asked and you make you choice what to do. You can answer or decline to answer, but you never have someone else step in and stop the interview or tell the reporter what you will and will not answer. Makes you wonder what's he hiding and just who is running the campaign."
Cole Stefan -- "WHY IS THIS NEWS?"
Sarah Riesgo -- "I thought the media wasn't supposed to be partial. Sounds like you're intentionally trying to paint Jesse Kelly in a bad light."
Irene Alarcon -- "Go figure liberal media! Shame on you!!!!!"
Lane Aldridge -- "Jennifer, 'ya done good'! And folks, it takes no one's 'intention' to paint JK in a bad light -- he's managed that quite well on his own!"
Nicole Young Gygi -- "I will never listen to your news outlet again. You are a bunch of liberal idiots and need to just tell the news without putting your views into it. Unliking you page and will NEVER watch you again. Jesse Kelly will win and hopefully this liberal town will see some changes."
Rene Anderson -- I have never been prouder of my local news team. Excellent work. And I think it shows the real man Kelly is. He should not be in a leadership role.
Memo to Erica: KGUN9 is not owned by Disney. But if we were, our viewer's question about ALIPAC would still deserve an answer.
Speaking of which, the people who run ALIPAC were none too pleased to see their organization mentioned in the same breath with the word "neo-Nazi." To say the least.
This afternoon I returned a call from William Gheen, a former congressional assistant who now leads ALIPAC. Gheen immediately launched into a tirade that was very similar to what we'd heard from Ellinwood: KGUN9's question was inappropriate, KGUN9 is unethical, KGUN9 has no journalism values, etc. His essential point: KGUN9 News had no right to ask a question out loud that referenced any supposed connection between ALIPAC and any white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and so on, without first proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that such allegations are true, regardless of their source. Said Gheen, "We are multiracial. We have always spoken out against racism. We have publicly spoken out against racist groups. I have a background in civil rights campaigning. I don't know what more I could do to be more racially inclusive."
He accused KGUN9 of making allegations against ALIPAC without bothering to check them out. I pointed out that, for one, KGUN9 was not making any allegations, we were simply reporting the fact that other credible people and politicians had done so. Further, I said KGUN9 News had indeed aired a previous story exploring this very issue, a story that quoted him personally -- so he knew very well that we had looked into it. I also pointed out that the allegations against ALIPAC were fair political game, having been issued by credible organizations and people such as the Anti-Defamation League, The Southern Poverty Law Center, U.S. Senator John McCain, and so on.
Here the conversation took a turn toward the bizarre. Gheen dismissed those people and organizations on the grounds that they were political opponents of his, then added, dramatically, "I want to make a claim. This is on the record. Are you ready? This is for the record. [Deleted] is into child porn. As President of ALIPAC, I'm saying that [deleted] is into child porn."
Gheen was speaking very fast, and although I'm a very fast typist, I may have missed one or two words of what he said. But that was the gist of it.
In an earlier version of this story, I included the name of the politician Gheen mentioned -- not because of what the statement said about the politician (it said nothing), but because of what it said about Gheen. That was a mistake. Even though it's clear that Gheen was making his allegation up on the spot for dramatic purposes (he later posted a comment on KGUN9.com declaring that his statement was "facetious"), later in the evening I had second thoughts about letting him name someone in that manner even if it was obviously not to be taken seriously. So I've taken it out.
OK, point taken. Just because someone makes an allegation doesn't mean it's true. But when allegations are bandied about in the political arena, one thing journalists consider is the credibility of the source. In this case, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League know a little something about the subject matter, and their expertise is well established. These people are not random cranks. Nor can that phrase be used to describe Senator John McCain, who was his party's nominee for U.S. president not so long ago. Serious comments made by a politician in the heat of political warfare are both newsworthy and fair game for reporting.
I also pointed out that a question is an inquiry, not a statement of fact, and that if Jesse Kelly had found the criticisms of ALIPAC to be unfounded or unfair, he could have said so. That was, in fact, the entire point of the question. Gheen responded that it was not Kelly's job to defend ALIPAC.
As we spoke Gheen grew louder, and I found it harder and harder to get a word in edgewise. Next he began misquoting my words back to me, claiming that I had now admitted that I had no ethics, that I had stated that I had no duty to verify facts, and so on. I made one last attempt to score points, saying that KGUN9 News had correctly reported the nature and source of the allegations. At this point, he began saying, "You're a liar, you're a liar, you're a liar," over and over again.
Realizing that my voice, too, had now grown loud in an attempt to be heard, and that my tone, too, had grown a bit rude, I decided it was a lost cause and was time to end the call. I wished him a good day and hung up.
Gheen says he will be on the Rachel Maddow Show (on MSNBC) to discuss all this. Maybe she'll have better luck than I did communicating with him.
KGUN9 reporter Claire Doan also interviewed Gheen today, with the intent of letting ALIPAC tell its side of the story. She managed to do it without getting into a shouting match -- and knowing what I now know, that was no minor feat. Gheen's parting shot was to choose, rhetorically speaking, option "I" on the pop quiz presented above -- he dismissed KGUN9 News as "a bunch of liberals." (You can now find that story posted here.)
By the way, Mr. Gheen -- your assertion is an unsubstantiated allegation. Yet we are reporting it, even though we know it to be untrue, because you are a newsmaker and an important player on the political scene, and are entitled to your say. See how that works?
(Gheen sent us a formal demand for retraction. See the full document in the "Related Documents" section beneath the photos.)
KGUN9 viewers: What's your opinion? You can add your comment to this story or log on to our Facebook page.
Post Script: I was comparing notes late this afternoon with Jennifer Waddell about Gheen's phone call, and his no-doubt facetious child porn allegation. Jennifer said that during his diatribe with her in the KGUN9 lobby, Ellinwood used the same rhetorical device, asking her whether she would report it on the news if Ellinwood were to make an accusation that one of Kelly's political enemies was a child predator or something. Ellinwood's point was that by asking an unfair and incendiary ALIPAC question, Jennifer had done the same thing to Kelly.
Looks like Ellinwood and Gheen are in philosophical and tactical lockstep.
The answer to your question, Mr. Ellinwood, is that if the spokesman for the Kelly campaign were to make that kind of scurrilous allegation seriously and on the record, it would be intensely newsworthy. We'd certainly report it -- not just because of what, if anything, it might say about the person being attacked, but also because of what it would say about you. And then, of course, we'd investigate the claim, as we have done with the allegations against ALIPAC.
If you'd like to go there, you know how to contact us.