Mommas, Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Journalists

The latest embarrassment to the political press began harmlessly enough when Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean met privately yesterday morning, as they do every month. Afterwards, the pair emerged for a photo op.

But because of some recent incendiary comments by Dean — some of which Reid had distanced himself from — the appearance attracted a throng. “About 60 reporters and cameramen attempted to shove their way into an office equipped to handle about 20,” writes Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich. “The madness began at 10:30 a.m. when the media horde was invited to enter Reid’s office. Photographers poured in first, equipment slamming into the sides of a narrow doorway and — in one case — the temple of a female staffer.”

As Leibovich reports, about 20 reporters couldn’t get in, so they began clamoring from the back and imploring the politicians not to begin. Soon, reporters started shouting questions, all but one of which were focused on Dean’s recent remarks and Reid’s reaction to them. After repeating his earlier sentiment that Dean “misspoke,” Reid tried to steer the discussion to “important issues” like “the escalating costs of gasoline, health care and college tuition.” Reporters had other questions on their minds.

Cutting through the “cacophony of competing screams” from the press was Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson, who asked Dean, in light of his recent comments, if he hated white Christians. Dean didn’t dignify that with a response, and Reid tried to talk about a “positive agenda,” but Wilson continued his line of questioning, prompting Democratic Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin to ask sardonically if Wilson was the one running the press conference.

All of that information comes from Leibovich’s report; thanks to the magic of blogs, we also get a bit of the backstory to share. Wonkette, The Huffington Post and AMERICAblog report that, when Leibovich asked Wilson who he was, Wilson screamed back, “Who the fuck are YOU?” According to AMERICAblog and Wonkette, Leibovich asked the question because “Wilson was apparently wearing no credential of any kind … and behaving ‘bizarrely angry.’” Those blogs also claim Leibovich said later that he asked Wilson who he was “because of his incredibly pointed questions”; Leibovich, say the blogs, “wondered whether or not [Wilson] was a rogue Republican staffer.” All three blogs wrote that Wilson later stormed down Senate halls, screaming obscenities.

Skeptical of such accounts, we cornered Leibovich today. “Yeah, I can confirm it,” he said. “It involved Brian Wilson of Fox News — not of the Beach Boys. And he was not giving out good vibrations.” He said Wilson wasn’t holding a notebook, and, “for all I knew he was Jeff Gannon, based on the tone and insistence of his questions.”

We asked Leibovich why his story — which, after all, was about reporters behaving badly — didn’t include his own exchange with Wilson. He referred us to his editor, Steve Reiss, who told us, “I think the story was properly focused on the scene with Dean and Reid and Durbin.”

So the exchange between the Wilson and Leibovich wasn’t relevant?

“I thought that was not really what the story was about,” said Reiss. “In any story you make choices about what you include and don’t include, and that was one of the choices that we made.”

Though we loved the Post’s story, and its instinct to pull back the curtain on the manner in which reporters prefer political theater to substance, we would have made a different choice. Wilson’s outburst provided, in vivid detail, an example of his tactics at the photo op — and of the bullyboy style that it takes to get your questions heard in such an environment.

If, as Leibovich writes, “The … spectacle offered yet another distillation of why so many people believe that politicians and the media deserve each other,” then surely the reader deserves a full accounting of said spectacle.

Fortunately, even without outing Wilson as the boor that he clearly is, the Post still found a way to transform a largely useless media circus into something that gives readers a better sense of the workings of political journalism. And it did have the chops to close the piece with a quote from Durbin to a group of reporters:

“Please, for a minute, get to the substance,” said Durbin. “You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Brian Montopoli

Editor’s Postscript
Brian Wilson responds:
[Mark Leibovich] approached me after the Dean photo op — without identifying himself as a reporter — and asked me, in a rather brusque way, who I was.  Not in the habit of identifying myself to complete strangers, I did return his question with a now widely quoted question of my own.

He then repeatedly asked me to show him my credentials.  I explained to Mr.Liebovich that I did not feel obligated to produce my credentials simply because a reporter from the Washington Post demanded it.  But be clear, from the moment he identified himself to me, the conversation was animated, but not profane.  

There was no “race” down the hallway, I was simply rushing to the gallery to file a report for my news organization.

I must tell you, I have never in my 35 years as a journalist, been asked by another reporter to prove I was who I said I was.  In my humble opinion, if there was bizarre behavior on display — this was it.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.