Melanie Plenda, a New Hampshire-based freelance reporter, knew that she was going to cover a fundraiser that was closed to the media. The event, organized by the New Hampshire Republican State Committee (NH GOP), featured remarks by presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway and took place in a capacious ballroom at the Nashua Radisson Hotel.
On assignment from the Associated Press (AP), Plenda received instructions from editor Michael Casey. “Go in and if anybody asks [if you’re a reporter], tell them. Don’t lie. If they ask you to leave, then leave. That was my intention,” says Plenda in reference to the instructions. That’s standard-issue guidance, too: Organizations may declare events closed to the press, but it’s up to them to keep us journalists out.
After chilling outside of the event for a bit, Plenda walked down the hallway and found that the defenses against the media were underwhelming. As she closed in on the space, she could hear Conway speaking. She asked a security officer if it was okay to hang there. Yes, came the answer. Then a woman came by and invited her into the room, even as Plenda said she didn’t have a ticket. No worries, said the woman, who, according to Plenda, received a compliment from another attendee for her work in putting the event together. After Conway finished her remarks and exited, Plenda went to see if she could corner her for a quick interview. That was it.
A 139-word story resulted. “President Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway has told supporters in New Hampshire they should ‘just ignore’ his critics and the incessant chatter about the scandals dogging him,” reads the lead sentence. The piece pegged attendance at 150 people.
Apparently Plenda didn’t listen to White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s Jan. 21 rant. This is no time to get casual about matters of attendance. “I was trying to estimate crowd size from after the fact,” Plenda tells the Erik Wemple Blog. “That wasn’t the assignment.” Based on this Facebook photo of the event, Plenda and the AP most certainly did undercount the people in attendance. Patrick Hynes, a senior adviser for NH GOP, says 430 people were there. The AP, says Hynes, indicated that it is mulling a correction on this matter (and, indeed, here it is, though Hynes says he first requested it on Friday morning).
Yet this bite-size spot-news story has stirred more controversies than merely an attendance flap. NH GOPers cite a Facebook post that Plenda penned last November following the election of Donald Trump as president. It’s an explicit call for activism and protest, including a nod to the ACLU:
The NH GOP’s Hynes is eager to know why the AP “intentionally sent a reporter to a closed press event especially when that reporter has called for protests against the president of the United States.”
There’s no denial from Plenda that she authored the tract in question. “I wrote that,” she says. It started out on her “personal, private” Facebook page, she says, and then someone shared it more widely. The AP, she continues, has barred her from future political assignments because of the posting. “I should have known better and should have been more careful with my private thoughts,” she says.
Lauren Easton, a spokeswoman for the AP, sent along this comment: “AP standards require employees to refrain from sharing political views in any public forum.” Fine, but Plenda’s not an employee; she was working as a freelance reporter.
Another sore point is Plenda’s access to the event. “She knew it was closed to the press,” says Hynes, who also says he has a voicemail from someone at the AP acknowledging that it knew about the closed-press status. “For all intents and purposes, she was a walk-in and she was very deceptive in allowing people to believe that she was not a journalist. It is a hotel ballroom. Ultimately there is not 100 percent security, but she had no integrity she she knowingly violated the rules,” says Hynes.
Herewith a strong dissent. We journalists are not party to the rules of the NH GOP, or the national GOP or the national Democratic Party or whatever group doesn’t want us reporting on its proceedings. Our role — our rules — mandate that we cover public events. And with the NH GOP’s insistence that this was a widely attended event — with upwards of 400 people in attendance — this was a whopper of a public event. It is the burden of the organizers to post sufficient gendarmes if they want to block us from securing the access necessary to inform our audience.
In his talks with the AP about just this matter, Hynes said, “They belligerently blamed it on us for having it closed in the first place.” That is the proper journalistic position.
“Great work you did for the AP. When you look in mirror, do you see a vile piece of human filth? Ideologically rotten whore,” reads one email. Another one has a subject line that reads, “Melanie you stupid slut.” Its body consists of this: “Do you think we will take your s[–––] forever ? We know where you live.” That one triggered a police report from Plenda. More misogyny is available on Twitter, of course.
“Even if my count was wrong, I don’t think it warrants me being called a ‘rotten ideological whore,’ ” says Plenda. “I think it’s disproportionate.”
Proportion matters, and so do facts. The NH GOP would have been derelict not to demand a correction on its crowd size. No way should it have taken six days for the wire service to publish a correction on something so patently mistaken. A better way for the NH GOP to have policed proper reporting on the event, though, would have been to invite a whole bunch of reporters to witness the goings-on. That way, the AP’s inventory would have appeared out of whack.
Yet the idea that somehow Plenda was propagating her liberal agenda with her undercount is a reach. The notes that Plenda sent to her editor, after all, contain this description of the affair: “The night included a VIP Round Table Discussion, Cocktail Hour, VIP Cocktail reception and Dinner in the Grand Ballroom where Conway spoke to a packed house (roughly 150 people or so).”
Those words reflect the effort of a stringer trying to do her job — a job that, on this day, required about seven hours of work, including 2.5 hours commuting from her home to the Radisson. All for $150, a death threat and pejorative comments about her body. “I love what I do. I love being a journalist, even now, even when it’s scary. I don’t want to lose it,” she says.