A media-bashing congressman plots a comeback

Michael Grimm greets supporters after a comeback rally on Staten Island. Photo by Jon Allsop.

Toward the end of a speech marking his return to politics, Michael Grimm—the pugnacious, disgraced former Republican congressman—turned his gaze to the bevy of photographers and cameramen standing before him in a Staten Island parking lot. “There’s only one thing I know how to do and that’s fight,” he vowed. “I’ll fight with you any day.”

Grimm was expressing solidarity with his supporters, not attacking the assembled media. But the media has reason to be wary of Grimm’s fighting talk. In 2014, he made national headlines when he threatened to throw NY1 reporter Michael Scotto off the balcony of the US Capitol. “Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this fucking balcony,” Grimm told Scotto, taking exception to a question about alleged campaign finance irregularities. “You’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half, like a boy.”


Grimm was re-elected later the same year, but then indicted and
jailed for off-the-books employment practices at his Manhattan health-food restaurant. Now he’s out of prison and running to reclaim his old seat in the House of Representatives. Since word of his comeback got out, the press has talked up both his conviction and the Scotto incident. But while the fraud charge hovered over Grimm’s rally on Sunday—he punctuated his speech with a lengthy, if qualified, apology—his threat to kill a journalist wasn’t so much as an afterthought.

“That’s what you’re gonna ask me about?” asked Mary Ellen Probanski, a sign-toting Grimm supporter, when asked about the Scotto threat. “He was being harassed by the reporter, so I understand it. Not that it’s right. But I understand it.”

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Leaning on a car across the street, Jim Romano, a former newspaper photographer who identified himself as a Democrat, also brushed off the question. “It’s all forgotten. Who the hell remembers? Who cares?” he said. “People wanna know what he’s gonna do in the future.”

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Nearly four years have passed since Grimm threatened Scotto. People in positions of power lose their cool and say stupid things sometimes. And after initially saying he had “every right” to be angry at Scotto’s “cheap shot,” Grimm apologized. Scotto accepted the apology and that, seemingly, was that. But the thought persists: What if Grimm had threatened a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a waiter at a Congressional reception? In any of these scenarios, would voters see the threat as a non-issue, redressed by a simple, belated apology? What makes threatening a journalist different?

“It’s clear proof that people don’t care,” says Peter Sterne, a senior reporter at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “We are now in a society where threatening journalists is not enough to get you blacklisted, and in fact, at least among Republicans, can be something that is beneficial to you.”

Sterne runs the US Press Freedom Tracker, launched in August in conjunction with CJR and others to log threats against journalists in a climate of rising hostility. While threats are nothing new, the media-bashing climate popularized by Donald Trump has given them a permissive gloss.

In May, for example, Greg Gianforte, the GOP candidate for a Congressional special election in Montana, body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Like Grimm before him, Gianforte initially refused to apologize before he finally said sorry (he also cut a check that helped fund the Press Freedom Tracker). Gianforte won the election and now serves in the House.

There’s little evidence that voters, beyond a vocal minority, see aggressive behavior toward reporters as a positive reason to vote for a candidate. Many of the votes in Gianforte’s race had already been cast by the time he assaulted Jacobs, and he was heavy favorite to win anyway. At a CJR event in Atlanta this week, Jacobs refused to peg the attack to a broader climate, and said the public’s response was largely sympathetic.

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It would be equally facile to attribute Grimm’s putative comeback to violent anti-press urges. Staten Island has its own, esoteric political ecosystem—it’s a defiant red holdout in a sea of blue; more like the Midwest than the East Coast in its aesthetics, its culture, and the problems that roil it. And in any case, it’s not yet clear that Grimm has a serious chance of unseating incumbent Republican Dan Donovan. (The district also includes parts of Brooklyn.)

It’s just unfortunate the camera was on.

Whenever he’s asked about threatening a reporter, Grimm stresses his continued regret. “When I had that exchange with Michael Scotto, my family’s criticism really set me straight,” Grimm says in a statement to CJR. “I may be the son of a roofer, but I was the representative of my district, and I disappointed myself as a disciplined person. I apologized to my constituents and to Scotto and I even invited him to lunch. I hope to have a good working relationship with the press—as much as a Trump Republican can have, anyway.”

But that doesn’t mean the press should stop talking about it. Letting the public lapse into indifference about physical threats to journalists is something we should avoid.

“He was under a lot of pressure at the time,” said Frank Aversa, a former vice chair of the Staten Island Republican Party who introduced Grimm on Sunday. “It’s negative yes, but he did the right thing and apologized. It’s just unfortunate the camera was on.”

***

IN SOME WAYS, Grimm’s campaign foreshadows a midterm cycle that’s likely to treat the press as a punching bag—albeit not literally. He’s a fiery, Trump-sympathizing insurgent mounting a primary challenge against a polished pillar of the GOP establishment (he reportedly has the backing of Steve Bannon). Given the outsize role distrust of the media plays in the rhetoric of Trump and his acolytes, it’s no surprise Grimm dabbles in it, too.

“He’s gonna run as a Trump Republican,” says Tom Wrobleski, a senior opinion writer at the Staten Island Advance. “‘Drain the swamp’—the media is a big part of that. But I don’t expect him to threaten to kill anyone. He’s learned that lesson.”

Grimm didn’t mention the press much in his speech on Sunday, though he did chastise “some of the media out there” for criticism of Trump’s response to the devastation wreaked on Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. That mirrored a recent column for The Hill, in which he decried “fake news” about Trump’s equivocation of neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters in the wake of deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I’m surprised he didn’t attack the press more. He normally does,” said Rachel Shapiro, a politics reporter with the Advance, as Grimm whirled round the parking lot greeting his supporters and shrugging off requests for comment from the media.

Grimm recently hired Michael Caputo as an adviser and spokesman. Caputo was a senior communications aide to the Trump campaign last year, and says “fake news” simply describes a bias that Republicans have had to battle for decades. “The media is as left as it’s always been,” he says. “The president has just given them a new name.”

Caputo says Grimm will be open and fair with the media during his bid to return to Congress, and won’t operationalize gratuitous, anti-press attacks. “There are kitchen table issues that are at the top of the congressman’s agenda. Fake news, that kind of thing, is not something that really breaks the surface.” But, he adds, “if something happens, and we get abused by a reporter that has an agenda, we’ll certainly talk about it.”

Grimm is anything but a proto-Trump and had personal grievances with the press before the president arrived in Washington. In May 2014, a few months after he threatened Scotto, Grimm said, “There’s no question: I’ve been vilified by the press since the day I got here. From the very beginning they had to figure out how to get rid of this guy.” In May last year, meanwhile, he complained of a long-term “demonizing media barrage.”

If something happens, and we get abused by a reporter that has an agenda, we’ll certainly talk about it.

The Scotto incident was not Grimm’s only brush with NY1. Bob Hardt, the channel’s political director, recalls another occasion when Grimm came into the studio and got “hot under the collar” about a tough line of questioning. While less extreme than his threats to Scotto, Grimm’s behavior was “somewhat alarming,” Hardt says in an interview with CJR. “It’s not the behavior a typical politician would engage in following an interview he or she didn’t like.”

“I believe that Grimm has every right to push back on bad journalism. Every right,” Caputo countered. “Grimm is not a shrinking violet, I’m not gonna advise him to become one. But as long as reporters are fair, they’ll get the information they need.”

Some in the media are skeptical they’ll get reciprocal fair treatment. “[Grimm]’ll probably cry ‘fake news’ any time someone brings up his charges of tax evasion, campaign fraud….there’s so many charges against him,” says Alexander Nazaryan, who described Grimm as a “cancer” in a Newsweek op-ed last month.

And Shapiro thinks Grimm might try and avoid the media to a greater extent than he has in the past. They last spoke a few months back, and Shapiro says Grimm had harsh words for the Advance, which he expected to be more lenient as his “hometown newspaper.”

Since then, Shapiro says Grimm hasn’t returned calls from Advance reporters. But Caputo denies that his candidate has a problem with the paper. “We expect to have a productive working relationship with the Advance because we think they’re among the good guys,” he says.

***

REPORTING ON A POLITICIAN like Grimm is a challenge and a contradiction—his scandal-laced past and energized, blood-and-thunder charisma make for great copy, but question marks hang over access to his campaign and his temperament.

Predictably, most reporting on Grimm’s comeback announcement has focused on his scandal-ridden past. The Daily News, for example, marked his speech with an article questioning how exactly he managed to pay off the restitution he owed from his tax fraud conviction.

That’s fair fodder. But with a clutch of larger-than-life right-wingers likely to run for office in 2018, the media has to sort out how to give prominence to scandal without drowning out substance. It should never be forgotten that Grimm intimidated a journalist on camera. But he should not be reduced to that either given his distinctive positions on health care, immigration, and—in a district battered by Hurricane Sandy—flood defenses.

If all we talk about is a threat to one of our own we look like we’re beating a dead horse.

Regardless of Grimm’s past behavior, the people of Staten Island, like all Americans, expect media coverage to go deep on policy issues that affect them, as well as hold those who seek to represent them to account.

Sam Pirozzolo runs a right-wing YouTube channel and made national headlines last year when a giant Trump “T” on his front lawn was torched. “If you the only thing you’re going to ask him is ‘Why would a convicted felon run for political office, and why did you say you were gonna throw the guy off the balcony?’ without asking, ‘Hey Michael, what are your ideas?’ then yeah, he’d call the press out for giving him a hard time, and he’d be right,” he says.

It’s a challenging balance for reporters to strike—especially when they have so much skin in the game.

But on the ground, news outlets don’t think they’ll have a problem getting the balance right. “I think we were outraged, justifiably, that he threatened one of our reporters, but we also covered his campaigns fairly,” says Hardt at NY1, which plans to host a debate between Grimm and Donovan. “If all we talk about is a threat to one of our own we look like we’re beating a dead horse.”

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Jon Allsop is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.