There are many lessons to be learned regarding Rep. Michael Grimm's, R-N.Y., physical threat against a TV reporter after the State of the Union address, and most of them have little to do with the actual substance of Grimm's comments. Does anyone really think Grimm would have thrown NY1 reporter Michael Scotto "off the f-ing balcony" or break him in half like a "little boy?" As explosive as Grimm's temper appears to be, it's highly unlikely he'd follow through. But his behavior offers a great primer in how not to deal with the media, especially when you're under investigation.
1) Do not try to bully reporters. It isn't that our feelings will be hurt, or that we'll punish you with our news reporting. It's that it simply doesn't work. When one is elected to federal (or even local) office, one may think he or she is in charge of everyone – not just staff, but the media as well. Nope. We don't work for the government, and we don't care what you think of us, especially when your opinion of us is based on whether you like how we write about you. And many of us have faced actual danger – either by reporting in a war zone, covering the mob or being threatened with jail for failing to turn over a source. Reporters are not afraid of members of Congress, so threats don't work.
2) If you are indeed under some sort of investigation (as Grimm is, on campaign finance matters), don't get defensive. It makes you look really, really guilty. Instead, deflect. Graciously decline to talk. It may make you look a little bit like you're avoiding the issue (hey, you are!), but it won't be a story in its own right.
Even better, blame your lawyers. When former Sen. Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., was being investigated for alleged favor-giving, I'd call him frequently to see what I could get from him for my then-employer, the New York Daily News. D'Amato would always – always – get on the phone, and say, "I'd love to talk to you about this, but my lawyers won't let me." Then he'd hand me some innocuous detail, such as the fact that his office turned over 20 boxes of papers that week, so I had something to write. He fed the beast and at the same time refrained from poking it with a stick. Smart move.
3) Don't personalize bad press. It's not personal, even if you feel it's affecting you personally. Reporters in general aren't out to "get" you or anyone else. What they want is a good story. And if someone writes or broadcasts something that makes you look bad, it's not because the reporter doesn't like you. It's because it was a good story.
4) Understand your job, and understand reporters' jobs. Scotto was just doing his job. He works for a New York media outlet, and it would have verged on professional malpractice not to have asked Grimm about the allegations. Scotto, in fact, may have expected to get a "no comment" or other non-answer. That's OK. He still has to ask.
5) Understand that you cannot control what is in the newspaper or on the air. Unless you own the paper or the network, you cannot control what reporters ask, what reporters write or broadcast, or how a story is edited and placed in the paper. That means you can't set "ground rules" for interviews The worst offender is actor Angelina Jolie, whose publicity staff asked reporters, as a condition of getting an interview, to sign a paper saying they would not write anything disparaging about her. The biggest tactical mistake was that the existence of the written agreement alone is reason to write something disparaging about the actor and her operation.
6) Commit to memory a key truth of human behavior and psychology: You cannot change other people. You can only change how you react to them. If a reporter asks you something you don't want to answer, don't fuel the fire by making the reporter the story. That will only make you the story even more, and not in a good way. Go into your caucus and complain to your colleagues in private, but don't lose it in front of a reporter. You'll just look suspicious and unstable. Oh – and don' throw anyone off a balcony. And don't raise the possibility either, especially when you're threatening someone with a microphone in his hand.
- Read Laura Chapin: The GOP's Laser-Like Focus on Libido and Ladyparts
- Read Pat Garofalo: Atlanta's Snowstorm Traffic Is Emblematic of America's Congestion Problem
- Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.