Presidential campaign events are always orchestrated stage shows, and reporters are used to campaigns doing their best to manipulate the media and control the day’s narrative.
But my experience Thursday at a Michelle Obama event in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania was a first.
Obama campaign operatives barred me from talking to voters outside the event, to the point of interfering with my interviews and grabbing my microphone.
You can hear some audio of one encounter by playing my radio story above.
Here’s what happened:
During the two-hour wait for the rally to begin, I wanted to talk to some of the supporters attending the event. Since I couldn’t leave the media pen at the Upper Dublin High School gymnasium, I told press aide Devora Kaye I’d like to go and find some outside.
Kaye, who is exceptionally pleasant, said I could go out and come back in, but that I couldn’t talk to people waiting in line for the event. When I asked why, she mentioned security and crowd-control concerns, which honestly made no sense. Everyone coming into the building would have to go through security again anyway.
I went outside. The line was short and things were peaceful. The only members of the public around to talk to were the people in line to get into the rally, so that’s where I went.
Oh, no you don’t
I was speaking to a very enthusiastic Obama supporter named Corinne Dieterle, when I was interrupted by a young man wearing a campaign staff tag telling me I couldn’t be doing this.
This is outside, in front of a public high school.
“You can’t be doing this in line,” he said.
“Why is that?” I asked.
No answer. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t do what in line?”
“You can’t be interviewing people in line,” he said.
I asked him repeatedly who he was and why interviews were banned.
Those inquiries were met with silence. At one point he grabbed my microphone, and released it when I asked him to.
I decided to try speaking to a couple who were approaching, but not yet in the line. A different campaign operative approached and the same thing happened. He also refused to identify himself.
Later, inside the gym, I was in the assigned media pen and chatting across the rope line with Dieterle, who I’d tried to interview earlier. Another Obama press aide, Desiree Peterkin Bell came and politely told me that wasn’t permitted.
Dieterle by the way was troubled by what had happened, and called the interference of campaign aides “un-American.”
When I asked Peterkin-Bell why I wasn’t allowed to talk to a member of the public across the rope line, she said that I know how these things work, or words to that effect.
This is not normal
I spoke to Dick Polman, a 20-year veteran of national politics who writes the National Interest blog for Newsworks.org and a weekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
I described what had happened, and asked for his take.
“I’ve never had that experience, ever, and I’m talking about Republicans and Democrats, in the primaries, in the general election,” Polman said. “I’ve never been told you can’t talk to the people who are right in front of you. It’s a sign that the campaigns really really want to control the narrative.”
Jennifer Austin, the Pennsylvania press secretary for the Obama campaign declined an interview, and said only, “we encourage reporters to talk to our supporters at events.”
So what happened here?
It’s clear the interference with my interviews weren’t the rogue actions of a single overzealous staffer, since the two guys outside were carrying out the policy described to me by the official press folks inside.
And it’s not like I was going to get protesters or Romney supporters on tape by talking to folks attending the event.
I guess the campaign team wanted to make sure coverage focused exclusively on the words spoken from the podium, and took message discipline a little too far.
I hope this is a learning experience.