Advice to politicians: Don’t threaten to break reporters in half like children
I guess if I’m ever going to get a political consulting business off the ground, I’ll have to stop giving advice away for free. Meanwhile, this one’s on me: no matter how much a reporter irritates you, do not threaten to throw him off a balcony, or break him in half like a little boy. Not only is this weird and alarming, but you’re just begging the fact-checkers to analyze your upper-body strength and give you a “pants on fire” rating because you are not, in fact, capable of breaking a boy in half.
Alas, Staten Island Republican Rep. Michael Grimm did not have these concerns uppermost in mind when NY1 reporter Michael Scotto unexpectedly confronted him about campaign finance irregularities. Grimm himself does not stand accused of any crime; the charges concern one of his supporters using straw donors to exceed federal donation limits. The interview was supposed to concern the State of the Union address, which had just concluded. Rep. Grimm felt he was doing the reporter a favor by making himself swiftly available for commentary, and did not appreciate the out-of-bounds change of topics, to put it mildly.
Many versions of this viral video omit the part where the reporter pulls a “late hit” on Rep. Grimm by talking about how he didn’t want to answer the question that wasn’t supposed to be asked, after he walked away. The “Bloom County” comic strip did a great job of mocking such journalistic tactics:
None of which excuses what Rep. Grimm said when he blew his cool, as transcribed below by NY1:
“And just finally before we let you go, we haven’t had a chance to talk about some of the…” Scotto began before Grimm cut him off.
“I’m not speaking to you off-topic, this is only about the president,” said Grimm, before walking off camera.
“So Congressman Michael Grimm does not want to talk about some of the allegations concerning his campaign finances,” Scotto said before tossing back to the station. But as the camera continued to roll, Grimm walked back up to Scotto and began speaking to him in a low voice.
“What?” Scotto responded. “I just wanted to ask you…”
Grimm: “Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this f—–g balcony.”
Scotto: “Why? I just wanted to ask you…”
Grimm: “If you ever do that to me again…”
Scotto: “Why? Why? It’s a valid question.”
Grimm: “No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.“
I don’t know why a politician would lose his cool and say something so bizarre, rather than having a rehearsed statement to deal with an issue he has to suspect reporters will use to sandbag him. That’s the serious lesson to take away from all this, beyond the general importance of not making threatening statements or using intimidating body language. Every politician should be working up worst-case media scenarios and preparing good, instinctive responses; very few are glib enough to improv their way through a media gauntlet. Maybe Grimm thought the reporter was a Wesen.
Statements were issued by both Rep. Grimm and NY1:
“I was extremely annoyed because I was doing NY1 a favor by rushing to do their interview first in lieu of several other requests. The reporter knew that I was in a hurry and was only there to comment on the State of the Union, but insisted on taking a disrespectful and cheap shot at the end of the interview, because I did not have time to speak off-topic. I verbally took the reporter to task and told him off, because I expect a certain level of professionalism and respect, especially when I go out of my way to do that reporter a favor. I doubt that I am the first Member of Congress to tell off a reporter, and I am sure I won’t be the last,” read the statement.
NY1 Political Director Bob Hardt released a statement as well, saying, “It is extremely disturbing when anyone threatens one of our reporters – let alone a U.S. Congressman. The NY1 family is certainly alarmed and disappointed by the behavior of Representative Grimm and demands a full apology from him. This behavior is unacceptable.”
Grimm also called Scotto on the phone to apologize for “overrreacting” and released a written apology:
I was wrong. I shouldn’t have allowed my emotions to get the better of me and lose my cool. I have apologized to Michael Scotto, which he graciously accepted, and will be scheduling a lunch soon. In the weeks and months ahead I’ll be working hard for my constituents on issues like flood insurance that is so desperately needed in my district post Sandy.
Grimm’s basic complaint about the reporter’s conduct is sound, but he’s got to know he lost control of this narrative when he crossed the “throw you off the balcony” line, and lost hope of getting it back when he escalated to “break you in half like a boy.” He’s certainly right about members of Congress blowing their fuses, but the trick is to avoid making it memorable.