The Vice President and the Journalist

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 25 2011 11:59 AM

The Vice President and the Journalist

Jason Mattera announces his intentions up front: He's an ambush journalist. On his website, his greatest hits are filed under the page title "ambush." There's one of him nabbing the late Rep. John Murtha as he's about to get on an elevator. There's one of him ambushing former Rep. Bill Jefferson about his corruption scandal.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Most of these videos were filmed when Mattera worked at YAF, the conservative college group. His style: Show up with a camera, announce where he was from, ask the question. His targets were in the halls of Congress, where anyone can go if they get past metal detectors, and anyone can film. In March 2010, Mattera moved from YAF to Human Events, a conservative magazine with -- ca-ching -- periodical press credentials for Capitol Hill. And that's how we got Mattera's most viral video yet.

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After that confrontation, Biden stopped making the crime/cuts comparison. Today, The Hill reports that Biden wants to know how Mattera got to him in the first place, and his office "has also contacted the standing committee of correspondents, which oversees the gallery, regarding whether Mattera broke the rules by ambushing him."

The case is thin. Mattera was not as up-front as he's been in other videos. As you can clearly see, he gets close to the VP not by asking a question and saying where he's from, but by getting into a photo-op. "Mr. Vice President," he says. "Picture?" Once Mattera's got Biden he starts asking him a well-formulated question: "Do you regret using a rape reference to describe Republican opposition to the jobs bill?" Biden's "don't screw around" comment, which led the stories about this, might be a reference to the tactic. And yeah, the tactic is unfair. Most reporters are anonymous enough that, if they felt like it, they could sidle up to a politician in congressional offices, they could ask them questions without announcing that they were with the press. The answers they'd get might be different than the ones they get after they announce themselves as reporters.*

But that's really the only hit on Mattera here. There are rules governing film in the Capitol, but not in the office where this was filmed. There are places where non-journalists and non-staffers can't go, like the Speaker's lobby outside the House, or the halls outside the Senate -- the places where most reporters grab members and senators for quotes. But Mattera was next to reporters in a place where, technically, anyone could go. He ambushed the vice president, but his question could as well have come up at a press conference. And according to people who were there, Mattera did have credentials. (In a hurry, you could mistake a Hill press pass for a tourist badge, but it's a stretch.) Let's rap Mattera gently on the knuckles for pretending he just wanted a photo with Biden, but let's not pretend the question or the setting was unfair to the vice president.

*Think about what happened in 2008, when Mayhill Fowler, a volunteer writer at the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" project, asked Bill Clinton a leading question about a Todd Purdum story. Clinton, not knowing she was a reporter -- she didn't say she was -- ripped into Purdum with a "salty stream of epithets."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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