Guerrilla-style interview tactics make ambushed lawmakers’ blood boil

Lawmakers are increasingly frustrated with guerrilla-style reporters, bloggers and campaign operatives who ambush them on video to provoke an aggressive or outraged response.

Members of both parties want to see the unedited video of the latest high-profile incident, in which Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) grabbed a pair of young men with video recorders who asked him if he supports “the Obama agenda.” The lawmakers wonder if he was provoked or a victim of selective editing.

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No member who spoke to The Hill condoned Etheridge’s reaction, which was to grab and then clasp the questioner.

The face of the questioner, who called himself a student, was deliberately blurred in the video; he refused to say who he was and remains unidentified.

Most cell phones now shoot video, and handheld cameras are getting smaller and cheaper. The lawmakers contacted by The Hill mostly said they had been involved in some sort of video “sabotage” by bloggers, reporters or staffers working for political opponents.

“I’ve not seen the totality of [the Etheridge] film, but it looks to me that they’ve cut out any antagonism and just gone to the response of what might have been antagonism,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “I don’t say that to defend him. What any member of Congress ought to know is these people operate in teams. There’s a guy that sticks the camera in your face and makes insulting statements. And there’s a guy standing back filming the incident.”

King was referring to his run-in with a video crew from the Think Progress blog last year. A blogger asked King about comments he made earlier that year in which he said that if the IRS had been abolished, an attack in Texas in which a man crashed his plane into an IRS building could have been avoided.

King attempted to walk away from the blogger, but after being aggressively followed, he grabbed the man’s arm and declared that he was not going to be idly accused of murder.

“It’s happened to most of us,” said King. “The more outspoken we are, the more likely it is to have happened and the more they like to ambush you.”

Etheridge’s office issued a public apology after the video went viral on Monday. The Hill asked his office about what occurred in the minutes before and after what is shown in the recording.

“Congressman Etheridge feels that the circumstances for how or when this event occurred are irrelevant,” said Don Owens, a spokesman for Etheridge. “He has apologized and deeply regrets that the situation occurred, and wishes he had walked away at his first opportunity. Rep. Etheridge is not known as a member who encourages confrontations or engages in shouting matches, in Washington or North Carolina.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he was curious to see the rest of Etheridge’s video.

“Obviously we’re all very concerned about having our comments edited unfairly,” Issa said. “If you look at what was shown, there may be no more than that, but who knows what the 10 minutes before that was.”

Issa said he almost fell victim to a “gotcha” video crew asking members of Congress walking by whether they could sing the second stanza of the national anthem, which is rarely sung. The videographers ended up talking to another member instead.

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Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said he wasn’t aware of Etheridge’s situation, but after hearing about the video he wanted to know the circumstances.

“What I think a lot of people don’t appreciate is the extent to which members of Congress are approached in some sort of adversarial way,” Davis said. “I’m certain that Congressman Etheridge, [like other] members of Congress, [has] been approached in a confrontational way. And that very well may have been in the back of his mind.”

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) said he has the answer to aggressive guerilla-style video crews, and he’s shared it with his colleagues. He films them right back using his iPhone’s Qik program, which uploads the video directly to his website.

“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had bloggers approach me on the street to interview me and my response is I’m always happy to visit with them; however, I always pull out my Qik camera, and I film them filming me,” he said.

“And then I notice the tone changes of the person filming me — they become much less aggressive and more polite and conversational. I’ve actually had bloggers with cameras turn 180 degrees away and leave. I used to have it on my hip, and say, ‘C’mon, it’s OK, c’mon. I’m a Texan.’ ”

Mike Stark is a videographer who has been recording lawmakers for more than a year, catching them as they walk in and around the Capitol and posting the resultant footage online.

In one video last year, Stark approaches Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who immediately says, “Just don’t come up to me and put a camera in my face.” Cornyn blocks the camera’s line of sight with a red folder and asks a nearby U.S. Capitol Police officer to assist him. The officer says, “Mike, what did I tell you?”

Stark told The Hill that he’s since learned how to approach lawmakers tactfully.

“When I first got up to the Hill, I was walking up to them with the camera already rolling, assuming they weren’t going to talk to me,” he said. “It was a learning process, and it didn’t take me long to learn that the best practice is to say, ‘Hi, my name is Mike,’ while the camera’s not running. And then ask them if it’s OK to start running the camera or if they preferred to do it with just audio. There’s a human element to it all.”