COLUMBIA, SC — On Sunday, The Journal in Martinsburg, WV, published a question-and-answer interview with Democratic US Sen. Joe Manchin, who represents the paper’s readership in the state’s eastern panhandle.
The interview came with this unusual disclaimer:
Editor’s note: This question and answer session was permitted under the condition that The Journal would not ask questions regarding gun control legislation or the Second Amendment, as requested by the senator’s staff.Journal editor Christopher Kinsler told me the paper’s reporter had a chance to interview Manchin recently for about 15 minutes in person, and took it under the conditions Manchin’s staff laid out because “we have a lot of issues we need answers to that go beyond guns.”
Manchin, the former Democratic governor of West Virginia who has an A-rating from the NRA, is perhaps best remembered outside the Mountain State for a 2010 TV ad in which he uses a bolt-action rifle to blow a hole in a printed copy of a Senate cap-and-trade bill.
But lately he’s been in a whole new mess over guns.
The National Association for Gun Rights recently unleashed an ad targeting the senator in which Manchin’s face morphs into President Barack Obama’s. It calls him “the Senate’s loudest voice for Obama’s gun control,” and says he’s “beating the drum to herd gun owners into a federal registration system.”
In a video posted to YouTube on February 27, Manchin shot back at what he called “a bunch of crap” being spread about his role in the Washington gun-control debate. Manchin said the only bill he’s working on is one “that will keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people mentally deranged.”
And yet, as the National Journal pointed out on February 1:
Very soon after the Sandy Hook shooting, Manchin went on morning television and called for action on gun control. He quickly became known by the epithet “the Democrat with an A rating from the NRA,” a conservative Democrat from a red state who felt he could speak in favor of gun control. Then he backtracked, saying the political realities of Congress would make an assault weapons ban difficult to pass. Then he and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois went to work on their own background-check bill, according to media reports.
It sounds like an interview with a local paper might have been a good place for him to make his case and clearly articulate his stance on gun policy—especially for the people in his district. Instead, it looks like when given the chance, he chose, through his staff, to try to keep the gun issue out of the news altogether.
Should The Journal have let him?
I’ve wrestled with a similar question in my own reporting, albeit my situation involved a politician less seasoned than Sen. Manchin. It was my first in-person interview with Alvin Greene. He was, you’ll remember, the guy who stunned the world in 2010 by winning the Democratic nomination for Senate in South Carolina without campaigning.
From a June 2010 story I wrote for the Columbia Free Times (emphasis mine):
[Greene’s brother] said Alvin was done talking with reporters, he had no comments about the pending charges, and that it would “work its way through the court system.”
After several more attempted requests for an interview and an eventual compromise that no questions about the criminal case would be asked, Alvin agreed, through his brother, to come outside to talk with Free Times…
I described the event similarly in a graphic novel I wrote about that strange race. I’d taken the hour-long trip out to Greene’s house the day after he won with the intention to interview him about his campaign—such as it was—and to find out more about the town he lived in and how this guy had won. On my way out there the news was breaking that he had a criminal record and was out on bail for obscenity charges. So he’d holed himself up in his living room and told his family members to keep the press away.
I remember sitting there in the grass on Greene’s front lawn late in the day and watching reporters leave the property with no interviews. Eventually, when a photographer and I were the last ones there, I offered the compromise not to bring up his charges. It seemed at the time the only way to get anything. It worked, and I got the interview. And it wound up bringing more context to the story than had previously been out there about what was fast becoming an international news story.
Back to West Virginia and the present day, Journal editor Kinsler said the paper would have loved to ask Manchin questions about the gun debate going on in Washington where he’s a key player. But that wasn’t going to happen that day. Staff said he wouldn’t answer them.
Because Manchin is “our senator,” as Kinsler told me, the paper took its opportunity to ask him about the sequester and infrastructure issues facing its readership in the eastern panhandle.
“Right in front of us is sequestration; right in front of us is infrastructure,” Kinsler says. “We needed to provide a service to our readers.”
Whether Manchin’s process-oriented and generally superficial answers to the Journal reporter’s not particularly hard-hitting questions did that, we suppose, is ultimately up to the paper’s readers. I’m glad The Journal disclosed the conditions put forth by Manchin’s staff, as it’s already provided even more context for the Manchin-and-guns narrative the senator’s trying to avoid.
Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.