September 20, 2013

Got a non-story about Hillary Clinton? Publish it! (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

NBCNews.com found significance in a cell phone-confiscation incident that unfolded yesterday in Miami, where Hillary Rodham Clinton was giving a speech to the American Society of Travel Agents’ global convention at the Hyatt Regency Miami. One of the attendees had his cell phone snatched away by a security guard because he was using it to snap photos and video. “It’s crazy,” the snatchee, Andrew Rothberg, told Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald.

Why does the incident matter? Because, in the words of NBCNews.com, “the story is also a troubling sign if you’re a Democrat and you’re hoping that the Clintons learned something after ’08.”

The Clinton braintrust probably needn’t fear a backlash from Rothberg. He tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he’s the president of sales and marketing for Grey Matters, a high-end lifestyle magazine that circulates among nice homes and doctors’ offices in southern Florida. A blurb on the magazine’s website suggests that it’s all about money, not trashing presidential candidates: “Grey Matters Magazine writes about the issues that are relevant to the middle age demographic, the largest and most affluent segment of the population that is coveted by our advertisers.”

Rothberg alighted on the travel agents’ convention with an eye toward working up a piece on the confab and perhaps a sidebar about Clinton’s participation. Like everyone in attendance, Rothberg heard the instructions from organizers not to take any pictures or video of the event. But he wanted to record the moment for his kids, he says. So he took some pictures and snapped a bit of video.

Two women — security guards — approached and seized his Galaxy Note II. “She said, ‘I’m taking your phone. I’ll give it back to you afterwards,’” recalls Rothberg. “I walked out early.”

Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents, insists that the security folks asked Rothberg to turn off his phone or it would be swept away. He resisted those instructions, says Ruden, and the consequences followed. What happened next is in dispute. Rothberg says the guards fiddled with his phone and erased his images; Ruden says “nothing was erased. The woman who did it wouldn’t know” how to delete the material.

The Erik Wemple Blog will allow Rothberg and Ruden to finish that dispute “offline,” as they say at conventions.

ASTA’s Ruden reports that it wasn’t his association’s idea to clamp down on pictures and videos. That directive, he says, came from the group that runs Clinton’s speaking engagements, the Harry Walker Agency. It’s a very common stipulation. “Lots of speakers want it that way, and our obligation as staff people is to try to make sure” it’s respected, notes Ruden, who walked around the venue reminding people not to commemorate the event with their devices. (Harry Walker Agency didn’t comment for this story; all media requests must go directly to the company’s president, who wasn’t available today.)

Opinions differ as to the quality of Clinton’s performance before a crowd around 500-700 people.

“It was a boilerplate speech,” says Rothberg.

“Her speech was great,” says Ruden.

Resolving that conflict may be tough for us outsiders. As far as Ruden knows, no one videotaped the proceedings — not even ASTA, which doubtless paid a nice sum to hear the former secretary of state hold forth about stuff. (Ruden wouldn’t say how much). Clinton or her speakers agency may have image and business reasons to suppress video of such a routine outing. But the upshot in this case is the appearance of censorious thuggery just waiting to get rolled into some larger story about the control-freaky ways of Team Clinton. A majority of Americans — and probably a super-duper majority of travel agents — now own a smartphone; when will people in positions of authority stop trying to suppress their work?

UPDATE: Nick Merrill, a media liaison for Clinton, tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “We don’t know what the story is referring to, but whatever it is, nobody associated with Secretary Clinton was part of it – security or otherwise. So you’ll have to ask the host about this.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.