As far as tempests in teapots go, you can’t do much better than this dust-up between a Politico Florida reporter and a politician running for office in Florida’s 19th congressional district.
The reporter is Marc Caputo and the politician is Republican Dan Bongino. Apparently they were sniping at each other on Twitter a bit over what Bongino thought was unfair political positioning by the Naples Daily News, and then they had words via telephone. After lengthy baiting by Caputo, Bongino lost his cool and told the reporter to pound sand, but much less diplomatically. Political critics may have many negative thoughts about how Bongino handled himself or whether it’s wise to allow oneself to be baited into extreme anger by a local journalist.
What’s interesting about the exchange for a media critic, insofar as it is interesting, is that Caputo seems to think he came off well. So does The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Caputo proudly published the audio of his call on YouTube and posted it on Politico.
Here’s why Caputo’s distemperate performance doesn’t look as good as he seems to fervently believe.
1) Uneven savageness against powerful
Here’s Goldberg’s high praise for the interview.
I’m not alone in finding the journalist’s performance grating. The first response to the tweet is someone asking, “As a good example or bad example? Attempts to imitate O’Reilly’s baiting & badgering are not journalism.” Another said, it “[s]hould be taught to everybody else as a lesson in why you should never talk to a journalist.”
I’m actually all for political reporters going Beast Mode on those they cover. But Beast Mode can’t just mean obsequious coverage of those politicians the journalists love and smarmy, out-of-control hatred for those they dislike.
Politico is too much of this when covering the GOP candidates (and say, doesn’t this January tweet hold up well):
Dear GOP field, don’t waste staff time writing statements on Iran prisoner release, we can all guess exactly what you’re gonna say
Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) January 16, 2016
And Politico is too much this when covering Democratic candidates.
Bongino is simply running for the Republican nomination for a House seat, but whether you’re at that level or running for president, the badgering by political journalists is uneven. Either way, in this case, going Beast Mode doesn’t mean being a high-pitched, passive-aggressive, contemptuous jerk. Be aggressive, sure, but be an adult about it. And always stay calm.
2) A political reporter should not be a campaign operative.
Marc Caputo’s title at Politico Florida is “reporter.” “He writes the Florida Playbook and covers the politics of one of the country’s key swing states,” his bio reads.
According to his bio, he’s not a political commentator. His job is not to insert himself into a story. He’s supposed to report on political races and do it in such a way so that readers feel they can trust him to not get too emotionally invested in its outcome.
After he posted the audio of his passive-aggressive taunting of a candidate he is supposed to cover and people responded negatively, he spent his entire day tweeting about his hatred for the candidate he’s supposed to be covering. He retweeted negative comments about Bongino.
When someone said Caputo’s unhinged performance made him want to donate to Bongino, Caputo said:
If you have gotten to the point that you’re telling donors not to support a politician, you’re not doing journalism, but advocacy. Of course, Caputo had long since passed that point yesterday. As Ace of Spades HQ put it:
There’s a job where you bait a candidate with heckling and insults until he yells at you, then you post that video on the internet to embarrass him.
That job is called ‘Campaign Tracker employed by the opposing party.’
A Southern California prosecutor who blogs at Patterico’s Pontifications headlined his piece on the meltdown, “Politico Reporter Marc Caputo Beclowns Himself, Proudly Distributes the Proof.” He writes, “Sure, Bongino goes over the top. Why does he allow this punk to push his buttons like that? It’s a fair question. But it’s frankly amazing to me that Caputo released this himself, thinking it reflects well on him. Answer the question. Answer the question. Answer the question. Wow, you sure are a loser. How many times have you lost, loser? Wow, you’re getting upset! Why are you cursing? Why don’t you answer the question? Answer the question! Answer the question!!! By the end, I was rooting for Bongino to challenge him to a duel. I still am.”
Caputo may feel very proud of himself at this moment, and certainly there will be some journalistic bros who cheer him on. But the damage to his credibility among readers should give him pause.
3) Uncivil defensiveness
One of the worst things about journalists is how defensive we are. Caputo is no exception to that sad rule. Journalists should be sensitive enough to the world around them to be able to report well on it, but have a skin thick enough to take a bit of criticism. Despite the fact that many of his critics found fault with both the reporter and the politician, Caputo claimed that those who found his behavior problematic were “partisans for whom team winning is more important than truth.” When someone said he was confused why Caputo had been praised for his performance, he responded:
Put down the shovel and walk away from the keyboard, hoss.
4) Cross your t’s and dot your i’s
This is minor, and I’m chief of sinners on typos, but for all of Caputo’s demands that Bongino answer his questions just so, he should pay better attention to detail. He repeatedly wrote that Dan Bongino’s name was Don Bongino. The mistake is made repeatedly, including in the URL, and the Politico headline, and the Politico caption, although it appears to have been fixed in the YouTube description. He was alerted to the errors soon after posting them but they remained uncorrected more than 10 hours later.
All of which to say, I agree with Goldberg that this interview should be taught in journalism school. It’s a horrible interview where nobody comes off looking good. You could have a week’s worth of discussion in class about what this interview can teach young reporters about how to avoid coming off like an opposing candidate’s campaign tracker, about how to not come off so insecure in interactions with those you cover, and about how to accept criticism in a less defensive fashion.
In the meantime, journalism students and current journalists would be well served to read Matt Bai’s All The Truth Is Out. The book looks at how the political media complex has deteriorated in recent years, more interested in scandal than policy, asking marginal questions designed to induce bloopers than substantive civil discourse. Journalists can serve an important function in our republic. We can and should expect basic standards of behavior from them.