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Biden complains after dust-up with reporter

Originally published by Alexander Bolton, The Hill - 10/25/11

Joe Biden’s office has complained to the Senate press gallery about a confrontation the vice president had with a conservative journalist last week on Capitol Hill. 

Biden aides asked whether Senate rules were broken in the wake of the contentious exchange between the vice president and the reporter. 

Jason Mattera, who works for Human Events, a conservative magazine, used a pretext to catch Biden off guard in a Senate hallway and grill him on claims the vice president has made about jobs legislation.

Biden’s office has also contacted the standing committee of correspondents, which oversees the gallery, regarding whether Mattera broke the rules by ambushing him. 

Heather Rothman, the chairwoman of the gallery’s standing committee, said the matter is under review.  

“We’re aware of the concerns,” said Rothman, a reporter for BNA. “It’s being discussed.

“We’re aware this occurred and the vice president’s office [has made] contact,” she added, noting the standing committee itself hasn’t met to deliberate the issue. 

The video of Wednesday’s exchange went viral, as news outlets and the Drudge Report highlighted Biden’s comment to Mattera: “Don’t screw around with me.” 

CNN aired a segment — including footage of the incident — the same afternoon, and a YouTube clip of the interview has already attracted more than 380,000 views. 

Biden had just left a rousing rally where Democratic leaders said Republican opposition to federal funding for police and firefighters threatened public safety. But the cable news coverage focused on the dust-up between Biden and Mattera. 

Biden’s visible irritation might be explained by how he was lured into the short interview. 

As the vice president left the Russell caucus room, Mattera weaved his way through the entourage, shook Biden’s hand and asked him to pose for a photo. While shaking Biden’s hand, Matter asked him if he felt “regret using a rape reference to describe Republican opposition to the president’s bill.”

Biden looked momentarily frozen as what he thought was a friendly gesture turned into a pointed line of tough questions from a conservative interlocutor. Biden had just signed an autograph for an admirer and still had the pen in his hand, according to a source familiar with the incident.

“I didn’t use — no, no, no,” Biden said, furrowing his brow and shaking his finger at the reporter. “What I said — let’s get it straight, guy, don’t screw around with me. Let’s get it straight.

“I said rape was up three times in Flint, [Mich.]. There are the numbers. Go look at the numbers. Murder’s up, rape is up and burglary’s up. That’s exactly what I said,” Biden added. 

After initially balking at the questions, Biden stood by his argument that if Republicans continue to block the Democratic jobs bill, “murder will continue to rise, rape will continue to rise, all crimes will continue to rise.”

The Washington Post’s fact-checker ripped Biden’s claims over the weekend, giving the vice president “four Pinocchios” and writing that he “should know better than to spout off half-baked facts in service of a dubious argument.”

The Senate periodical press gallery and a spokeswoman for Biden declined to comment for this article.

Mattera admits to using a pretext to momentarily disarm Biden, but argues his methods were justified. 

“ABC and CBS have done undercover sting operations and have done them for decades. The fact that a conservative publication goes after a public official who was misrepresenting himself and a Senate bill to the public and tries to get an answer from him, that’s great,” he said in an interview Monday.

“The media should take notice that this is how you ask a question. If I had said, ‘Hey, Mr. Vice President, a question regarding your rape comments,’ he would shrug it off. 

“He’s not going to take questions hostile to his agenda. I want to get him in that honest moment when he doesn’t have his talking points and isn’t prepared to spin,” Mattera added. 

Mattera said his technique is “premised on looking to get the most honest reaction from politicians used to conning the media daily — and even their constituents.”

“You shouldn’t play patty-cake with politicians to gain access,” he said. 

He said his request for a photo wasn’t a fabrication because someone had volunteered to snap his picture with the vice president, and noted in a follow-up email that he was wearing his press credentials. 

This is not the first time Mattera has confronted a high-profile politician. 

Mattera approached Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the Dirksen Senate Office Building last year after an event and told him, “I appreciate your remarks in there. You were awesome.”

Then he started peppering Franken over $7 billion in the 2010 healthcare reform bill for creating healthier school environments and repeatedly cut off his replies with follow-up questions, even referring to him as “Senator Smalley,” a reference to a character Franken once played on “Saturday Night Live.”

Franken snapped: “You have to shut up right now and listen to me instead of interrupting me every time I say something.”

Jill Geisler, an expert in journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute, said pretexts can be used to report stories, but only as a last resort. 

“Critics and ethicists who have criticized ambush interviews have said it should be a last resort done not for drama but because other means for obtaining information have been unsuccessful,” Geisler said. “The whole question of honesty is something journalists should take quite seriously, including how they represent themselves.”

Geisler said a clear-cut case where using a pretext would be appropriate would be if a journalist had solid reason to believe patients at a mental hospital were being abused but had no way to gain access to the scene without dissembling.

 

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