The Monday afternoon call was innocuous at first.
Brenda Battel, a staff writer for the Huron Daily Tribune in rural Michigan, was seeking a chance to speak with Republican Senate candidate John James on Wednesday after the election.
Battel left a voice-mail message with the James campaign, and alerted it to a potential follow-up email to further discuss his campaign against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D).
Then Battel hung up the phone — or so she believed, she later said.
“Man, if he beats her … Jesus! F---ing John James. That would suck!” Battel is heard saying in a voice mail released by the James campaign. “I don’t think it’s going to happen though.”
The incident prompted the Daily Tribune to fire Battel later Monday after less than three years on staff.
Battel responded Wednesday in a statement.
“While reporting the news, journalists must put their opinions aside and focus on facts. I was not reporting the news when I made derogatory statements about Mr. James and his campaign. That was 100 percent my opinion, and I did not expect that it would be for public consumption. I obviously have regrets and am embarrassed that it was released,” she told The Washington Post.
“But while doing my job, which was to gather and report the facts, I did not let my opinions interfere with telling the truth. I proved that in every news article I wrote for the Huron Daily Tribune.”
Battel said she was venting and only speaking to herself, and had not realized her words were recorded until someone sent her an online story about it.
She has been heavily criticized on social media, she added, but has not seen anyone raise any instances of bias in her reporting.
Editor Kate Hessling said accountability was a primary concern for her decision to terminate Battel, amid plummeting public trust in reporters and withering attacks on the news media from President Trump.
“It’s imperative that our reporters act professional and neutral when dealing with the public, and that was not done in this situation,” Hessling told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “And that was inexcusable.”
The voice-mail message posted on YouTube by the James campaign was authentic, Hessling said.
Hessling said in a longer statement posted on the paper’s website: “The Huron Daily Tribune sincerely apologizes to Mr. James and to the public. These statements do not represent the views of the Tribune as a whole, nor do they reflect the actions of a responsible journalist.”
The paper, which serves a rural area in Michigan’s so-called upper thumb area, has been reduced to three full-time staff writers and five total staff members, Hessling said.
“We’re a very tiny newspaper,” she said.
James’s campaign seized upon the incident to attempt to draw a wide correlation between the Huron paper and other forms of media.
“It shows you that some media will do anything to keep the status quo and career politicians in power,” campaign manager Tori Sachs said.
James trailed double digits behind Stabenow, but his campaign — which accepted money from a white supremacist, according to the Detroit Metro Times — sought Trump’s help to raise the candidate’s profile. It has also suggested that a stunning upset could once again happen in Michigan — a crucial state Trump narrowly won in 2016. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) edged out Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary election there.
On Tuesday, Stabenow defeated James to win reelection to the U.S. Senate from Michigan, the Associated Press projected.
The incident with Battel inflamed conservative outlets, including the Daily Caller, which first reported the story, with what they consider evidence of widespread liberal bias in the media.
Fox News Channel anchor Tucker Carlson asked James on Tuesday evening about the incident.
“I think this is the indication that you’re getting, the uphill battle that many of us are facing because of a lot of the bias we’re seeing out there,” James said. “It’s just not fair for those who share different opinions than some in the progressive liberal media.”
James, on Fox News, decried media bias the same night that Carlson’s colleague Sean Hannity appeared on stage with Trump at a rally in Missouri despite assurances that he would not.
“I will not be on stage campaigning with the President. I am covering final rally for my show,” Hannity wrote on Twitter earlier Monday.
But Trump asked Hannity to join him on stage. He embraced Trump, thanked him and borrowed a term to describe media colleagues as “fake news.” The audience roared in approval.
The moment stunned reporters at Fox News, with one staffer telling CNN that a “new line was crossed” after Hannity and fellow Fox News host Jeanine Pirro gave Trump their full-throated support at the event.
Another network weighed in over the issue: Fox News itself.
The network said it “does not condone any talent participating in campaign events,” Fox News said in a statement Friday evening. “We have an extraordinary team of journalists helming our coverage tonight and we are extremely proud of their work. This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”