The Editor, the Candidate, and the Cuffs

Joe Miller’s extreme “no comment”

First, Sharron “earned media” Angle refused to do any interviews in which she could not hawk her website—a tactic that seems to have worked. Witness her $14 million third quarter haul.

Then, Christine O’Donnell, not exactly media shy during her late ‘90s Politically Incorrect appearances, began giving national outlets the runaround, leading to this interesting write-around in the New York Times magazine. (Notably, O’Donnell’s now trying a different tactic, featuring in a This Week all-eyes-on-Delaware feature on Sunday).

In New York, we’ve had Carl Paladino tussling with the New York Post’s Fred Dicker at the Sagamore Hotel, in an incident now known as the Sagamore Smackdown.

And now, Alaskan senate hopeful Joe Miller, the Last Frontier’s own Tea Party-backed, establishment-slaying candidate, is one-upping his southern friends and making headlines for his own unique brand of media avoidance.

The Alaskan papers have the story. This was the lede that ran in a close-to-home Alaska Dispatch online report Sunday:

Alaska Dispatch founder and editor Tony Hopfinger was grabbed and handcuffed by a private security detail working for U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller on Sunday while trying to ask the Fairbanks Republican questions following a town hall meeting at Central Middle School in Anchorage on Sunday.

Hopfinger was reportedly pressing Miller on whether the candidate had ever been reprimanded for politicking while working at the Fairbanks North Star Borough in 2008. Alaska Dispatch and other media have sued for the release of records related Miller’s time at the borough. Various accounts of what happened next generally agree on this course of events:

• Two or three bodyguards told Hopfinger to stop asking questions and to leave the building.

• Hopfinger continued to ask questions while apparently videotaping the candidate.

• Bodyguards told him that if he persisted they would arrest him for trespassing, but refused to identify themselves to Hopfinger.

• Hopfinger asked why he was trespassing, as the event was at a public school. Seconds later, he was then put in arm-bar and later handcuffed and sequestered at one end of a hallway for at least 30 minutes. He was told, “You’re under arrest.”

• Anchorage Police arrived on the scene shortly after.

Later, the paper reported more fully on the security team that had done the handcuffing:

William Fulton from Dropzone Security Services said Hopfinger should have known from the “Joe Miller for Senate” signs outside Central Junior High School that the town hall meeting — to which Miller invited citizens on the internet sites Facebook and Twitter — was a private event.

“They leased it for a private event,” said Fulton. “It wasn’t a public place.” That, he said, gave him the legal authority to tell Hopfinger to leave, then grab him and handcuff him when he didn’t do as told.

The Anchorage Daily News spoke to Hopfinger while he was handcuffed:

Hopfinger said he had in his hand a small video camera, called a “Flip.” He was trying, he said, to get an on-camera interview with Miller. In the process of following the candidate, Hopfinger added, he was getting pushed into by people who were crowding the hallway.

It was at that point, Fulton said, that Hopfinger “shoulder checked a guy into a locker.”

Fulton did not know the name of who was “shoulder checked.” It wasn’t one of our guys,” he said. “It could have been anyone. (But) I saw that shoulder check as being violent.”

A pot-bellied and overweight writer, Hopfinger wasn’t sure what a “shoulder check” is when asked about it. He said the only person he remembers touching is Fulton. Hopfinger said he put his hand on Fulton’s chest to try to push the former soldier back.

The altercation comes because, like Angle, O’Donnell, and other newby candidates, Miller has been refusing to answer important questions from reporters (the middle school town hall was populated by a mostly Miller-friendly audience). As the Daily News explains:

Miller’s vow to not answer questions about his own behavior includes his refusal to respond to allegations that he was disciplined for using government computers for partisan political activity when he was a part-time borough attorney there. The Alaska Dispatch, the Fairbanks News-Miner and the Anchorage Daily News are suing the borough in an attempt to get Miller’s full personnel file.

It’s been a frustrating election season for the media.

A message to new-kids-on-the-block candidates thinking they can avoid a questioning press and get away with it: you probably can. For now. Take sanctuary at Fox and its like and follow the talking-point road to Congress. Frankly, campaigning politicians have been doing so for eons—though the refusal to even take the questions is something that feels new—and voters don’t seem to mind that the real press isn’t able to get in your way. I guess they trust us as little as they trust you.

But there will come a time when, if you win, your constituents will begin to expect results; they will expect you to deliver on the promises you made at highly staged, meticulously orchestrated press-free town halls all across your states. Just ask the president. Then, they will expect a vigorous press to push back, questioning you on the very past you’re creating for yourself this election cycle. You may wish you had had some practice now.

What can we do besides hide out in middle school hallways and ambush politicians? Besides diligently showing up at press conferences in Nevada only to have our questions ignored and events cut short? Besides waiting for some turn in the tide?

An inverse “Fairness Doctrine” isn’t looking like a bad idea—one in which candidates have to spend as much time and energy answering tough questions from more mainstream outlets as they do now taking soft-ball questions from soft-ball allies. You want to run for office with little experience and a graveyard full of skeletons just dying to get out of your closet: fine. But you will at least have to face questions about what’s inside.

It sounds a little like a pressman’s pipe dream, sure. But arresting an editor sounded like a candidate’s pipe dream once upon a time.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.