"She Denies It Was a Set-Up"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 13 2011 8:03 AM

"She Denies It Was a Set-Up"

How not to ambush a candidate , exhibit A, in NY-26:

[GOP candidate Jane] Corwin, a member of the New York State Assembly, confirmed her chief of staff, Mike Mallia, recorded the video at Davis' campaign stop in suburban Rochester Wednesday night... Corwin said she will not ask her chief of staff to release the raw footage of an altercation between the staffer and Corwin's Tea Party rival Jack Davis.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Mallia's grunting cries of "Aaaaagh!" don't wear very well when played again and again as the lead segments on news items about the fairness of the ambush. And good for the local reporters here, who keep egging Corwin to release the entire tape -- who knows if Mallia was blocking Davis as he moved to the car, as Davis claims? -- and receive the unbelievable explanation that the video's not really hers, because Mallia was off duty at the time. If this backfires on Corwin, I think she's a victim of newfound media skepticism about video ambushes that are made to go viral. Local reporters in North Carolina felt just a little burned after 2010, when despite multiple denials it turned out that the "students" who turned Bob Etheridge into the Incredible Hulk were working for the GOP .

UPDATE: Jim Geraghty quibbles with this take :

[W[hy does the affiliation of the cameraman matter? Is there some perception that punching people is wrong, but if it’s a staff member of the opposing campaign, then it’s understandable?

"Hey, how could you punch that guy? What? He’s with the opposing campaign? Oh, it’s okay then."

The cameraman in the infamous "macaca" incident of George Allen was working for the Jim Webb campaign. I certainly don’t remember that being a major issue in the coverage, nor any suggestion that the cameraman’s affiliation with with Webb somehow justified Allen’s reaction.

We can answer the last point first: S.R. Sidarth's affiliation with the Webb campaign didn't become a major issue because it was known immediately. Allen recognized Sidarth (who was just standing and filming, not approaching Allen) and pointed him out. Sidarth gave interviews about the incident. Contrast that with how Davisgate unfolded. "Jack Davis Assault" was uploaded to YouTube by ECGOP, so we knew the local Republican party had it first. But local reporters had to dig to find out the camerman was Jane Corwin's chief of staff Mike Mallia. Davis claimed* that the video didn't show him being provoked by the camera. Reporters went back to the Corwin camp to confirm the story. She said, because Mallia was off duty, it wasn't her video, and it wasn't up to her to release it.

The context and the bumbling response are important. We need to know what the camerman is doing. Why? Let's create a hypothetical situation. I take a camera up to Buzz Aldrin. I block him from entering his house, and as I do, I berate him and say the moon landing was faked. He swats me in the face. It would be unfair, wouldn't it, if I didn't release the whole exchange to show how it happened? (I draft Aldrin into the hypothetical here because he punched a moon truther once.)

This is one of the problems with ambush videos. They're not intended to catch people who regularly engage in bad behavior -- like, say, taking a camera into a dirty slaughterhouse with unclean conditions. They're intended to get a reaction by provoking people. That's surely one reason why, instead of merely running to police, reporting an assault, and letting justice take its course, Mallia uploaded his video, and the Erie GOP sent it to the media. Does that excuse Davis for what he did? Hell no. Should a voter take Davis's temper into account when he votes? Sure. But when it comes to video tracking and ambushing, let's not pretend we were born yesterday.

*I stress that he's claiming this; we have no clue.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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