I have spent years refraining from getting into public spats with the publicists of politicians and government entities. They can be extraordinarily petty, unhelpful, deceptive or just useless. A few aren’t. They are professional and even-tempered, even under trying circumstances. I don’t bash the bad ones because I have a naive hope they can flip into joining the ranks of the good ones.
So I have hope for Nadgey Louis-Charles, the publicist for US Rep. Jody Hice (R-Georgia). According to her Facebook page, she’s a 2014 grad of the University of Georgia. Perhaps her experience with me last week will add something useful to her experience in a job I know can be challenging.
Friday, Nadgey Louis-Charles wrote a piece attacking me and a story I produced Thursday. She posted it to Hice’s Facebook page late Friday. (Find it here.) She helpfully tagged me, so I saw it more-or-less immediately.
I wrote a quick response on Hice’s page, but am moved to tell the full story here. It’s a cautionary tale of dealing with the hyper-sensitive youngsters who surround Members of Congress, who are apparently schooled to “push back” whenever words appear in news stories that may be out of sync with the press releases they send out with deadening regularity.
A producer in our newsroom, Ric Garni, had been researching the public activities of Members of Congress during their recent recess. Such open-to-the-public events are few and far between, although the press secretaries of congressmen will insist that they meet with the public all the time — just not in public settings.
Such public settings can expose GOP congressmen to a room full of left-leaning folks angry about President Trump and the repeal of Obamacare.
Ric spotted a bona-fide public appearance on the website of Rep. Hice. It was in Warren County, not quite two hours east of Atlanta. It wasn’t a “town hall.” It was billed as “coffee and conversation” with Rep. Hice, with an emphasis on health care and Alzheimer’s.
The site indicated it was open to the public and that “registration is not required.” We decided the night before to check it out and observe his interactions with the public. Hice had voted the previous week to replace Obamacare with a Republican substitute. Though Warren County had voted solidly for Hillary Clinton in November, we’d had no inkling any troublemakers had planned to attend.
After I posted my story about the event online, I got a voice mail and text from Nadgey Louis-Charles.
She wasn’t at the Warrenton event, but two other Hice staffers were there in addition to the Congressman. They seemed surprised to see me. Because the event was open to the public, I’d made no pre-arrangements.
In the voicemail, Louis-Charles said she wanted to discuss “the headline you ran and the story which was completely deceptive and false.” She went on the describe my interaction with Hice as “kind of an ambush.”
Here’s what actually happened.
Upon arrival, I had spotted Hice working a cafeteria-sized room at a place described as a senior center. I approached sans camera — photog Dan Reilly was still in the parking lot — and I said hello. Hice, who I first interviewed in 2012, has always been agreeable and pleasant. I asked him if I could chat with him on camera after the event. He said yes, of course.
I also asked him if he would wear a lapel mic during his remarks to the room. He agreed.
That was the “ambush.” (I’m not above “ambushing” reluctant newsmakers in public settings. But it didn’t happen here.)
Hice had spoken with folks individually before the program started. Using a PA system, a staffer introduced Hice. Hice spoke for a few minutes about Alzheimer’s, which had killed his mother 18 months prior (and my dad more than a decade ago). He spoke briefly about the health care bill the House passed. He took no questions, and passed the mic to a woman with the Alzheimers Association.
Hice had told me he would be hurrying to another event afterward. I’d promised to keep my post-event questioning brief.
Warrenton is a town that has seen better days. Except for the Warren County Courthouse and a restaurant across the street, most of its downtown buildings appear to be vacant. Attendees seemed mostly flattered to have the attention of their local congressman, and treated him gently. There were about fifty people in the room. Most of them were elderly.
Hice sat and listened. As the woman with the Alzheimers Association spoke, a staffer approached him. I watched them exit a side door into another room. I assumed he was coming back. The program was ten minutes away from the conclusion time posted on his web site.
As he stayed gone, I walked toward the main exit. I spotted Hice and a staffer outside. He stopped for the agreed-upon interview. While Reilly set up, a woman poked her head out the door. “You’re not going to take any questions?” she asked. She was slightly incredulous but not angry. It was a moment we did not record on camera. Hice answered by saying it wasn’t “that kind of an event.” The disappointed woman, who had driven there from Athens, walked back into the building, and Hice answered my questions in an interview.
After Hice had driven out of the parking lot, I looked at the time again. It was 11:30.
As Reilly drove us back toward Atlanta, I wrote the TV piece that would air at 5. The headline and story mentioned Hice’s early departure. The story also mentioned that his reception was mostly friendly, and explained that his departure was due to another event on his schedule. It included a quote from the Athens woman, who said she “just wanted to have a civil discussion” about the health care bill.
After she left the voicemail that night, I returned Louis-Charles’s call. She ranted about the “ambush” of Hice, which I shut down pretty quickly. Then she complained that the headline and mention about Hice’s early exit falsified and / or distorted what actually happened.
I told her it didn’t. Thankfully, our chat was brief.
Her post appeared the following day, starting with “#fakenewsalert” and a cute reference to my employer as “11 A Lie News.” Once again, she didn’t dispute any actual facts in my piece.
I linked to it. As of Sunday, my reply within his post had 55 comments. (Social media is the death of blogs.)
Louis-Charles was perfectly within her right to question the facts I put in the story. She’s within her rights to gripe that I emphasized elements of the event that she wouldn’t have emphasized when writing a press release. She can even say I distorted the importance of his early departure. I disagree. It’s unquestionably part of what made the story interesting.
And she can even make it public. Given that the story was pretty evenhanded, it doesn’t take much to make a congressional publicist go off the rails.
I wouldn’t have done it. But I’m also grateful I’m not a publicist for a congressman.