A 139-Word Story Sparks A Firestorm of Criticism for N.H. Freelancer

May 24, 2017

This story has been updated to make note of the AP's correction to its original story, issued Wednesday.

Last week, the Associated Press — along with other local news outlets — covered Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s visit to New Hampshire to speak at party fundraiser.

The New Hampshire Republican Party took issue with the AP’s decision to report from inside the closed-press event, the accuracy of its brief story and the integrity of the reporter who filed it — and responded with a firestorm of criticism, on social media and elsewhere. 

After days of complaints from the party, the AP eventually issued a correction to its story, saying its original crowd estimates for the event were wrong. But the incident serves as something of a microcosm for an increasingly tense relationship between political parties and the press.

When I tried to walk into the Nashua Radisson, sporting headphones and a microphone to interview guests mingling in the lobby outside of the Republican fundraiser where Kellyanne Conway was slated to speak, hotel staff stationed at the door had a firm message: “Media can’t come inside.”

That was unusual, and a clear break from past precedent for Republican party events in New Hampshire. Most other reporters trying to cover the event were also turned away.

But Associated Press freelancer Melanie Plenda had a different experience at the door. As a print journalist, she wasn’t carrying a giant microphone or camera. So, by her account, she walked into the building without trouble.

“I was perfectly prepared, if anyone asked me who was I? Did I have a ticket? Anything like that, I was going to be honest,” Plenda says. “I was going to say no, I'm a reporter and could I speak with an organizer or I would like to get an interview with Ms. Conway. But no one did.”

Plenda says she lingered outside the room where Conway was set to speak, and eventually someone who seemed like a guest invited her inside — even after Plenda said she didn’t have a ticket.

By the end of the night, Plenda filed what she thought was a run-of-the-mill, 139-word story. It leads with the fact that Conway told Trump supporters to ignore his critics and notes that, while some in the audience withheld applause at one point in Conway’s speech, the crowd was “largely friendly.”

But the state party is now furious — at the fact that Plenda reported from inside the event, and the reporting itself.

“Reporter and activist Melanie Plenda underreported the attendance of the event by roughly 300 people,” NHGOP Spokesman Patrick Hynes says. “She also claimed that the crowd gave only a tepid response to Kellyanne Conway when she criticized atrocious Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton, when in fact she received warm and thunderous support."

The state party didn’t limit its critique to Plenda’s reporting. Days after her story appeared, the party called attention to a Facebook post Plenda wrote last November, where she called for resistance to Trump’s presidency.

“This is not how journalism is done,” Hynes says. “You don't send liberal activists into an event for which they're not credentialed, they're not invited, and which is closed to the press to sneakily misreport on a story because you hate the President of the United States."

Plenda is a freelancer whose work has appeared in a number of New Hampshire publications over the years, including NHPR. She doesn’t consider herself a political reporter, because she says she doesn’t routinely cover political events, but says she regrets posting that Facebook comment about Trump last November.

Plenda also concedes that she might have been wrong about the crowd size, but she stands by the rest of the story — and so did AP, at least initially. 

“A freelancer covering the NHGOP fundraiser for AP was outside the event when she was invited in by a woman who appeared to be a part of the event,” AP Spokeswoman Lauren Easton wrote in an email on Tuesday, before the news organization updated its original story. “AP stands by its reporting. AP standards require employees to refrain from sharing political views in any public forum.”

NHGOP wasn’t satisfied with the news organization's refusal to update the story when the party first pushed back last week.

The party never reached out to Plenda to talk to her directly but did request a correction from her editors. When that didn't happen, the party began calling out her and her editor by name on Twitter and in its weekly newsletter — saying she “conspired” to sneak into the event, and decrying the AP's “garbage reporting.” By Monday, both Plenda’s story and Facebook post had become fodder for a NHGOP fundraising email.

Soon, the episode drew the attention of Breitbart, the right-wing news site, where Hynes is quoted as saying, “Republicans across the country should be aware that the AP cannot be trusted to be fair and balanced.”

And that, Plenda says, is when things started getting personal. Explicit comments from people she’s never met flooded her inbox, “just calling me vile names and calling me fat and calling me ugly and questioning my integrity and saying I’m a leftist.” One man emailed her: “We know where you live.” Another person even wrote Plenda a message on LinkedIn: “You are a dirty person.”

“Now they're fundraising off of this, and it's gone national, and it's affecting me and my family,” Plenda says. “And I don't think that is proportional to what they perceived happened.”

Hynes says NHGOP continued to call attention to the story because the AP refused to issue a correction, and the party “needs assurances that the AP is going to operate ethically" moving forward.

“We want the public to know that there is bad activist reporting happening in New Hampshire and will use all the channels that we can, all the channels we have at our disposal, to get the truth out,” Hynes says.

He declined to comment on whether those concerns about "activist reporting" extend to other news outlets, or on the vitriol Plenda’s now receiving.

“None of that has come from the state party,” Hynes said. “So I don’t know why you’re asking me.”

In the past, these kinds of disputes between political parties and the local press might have resulted in angry phone calls or emails, or a cold response to future interview requests. But local political observers say this incident — and the speed at which it escalated — reflects a coarsened online conversation that’s been years in the making.

“I have taken the #NHpolitics feed off my Tweetdeck,” says Greg Moore, director of New Hampshire’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity and a seasoned Republican operative. “I don't even have it on there anymore.”

If it were a quieter time on the policy front, Moore says it might make more sense to spend so much of its time drawing attention to its issues with the AP. But he questions whether it was the best use of time this week, when there were other important political and policy discussions playing out at the state level.

“Social media can be a great way of getting messaging out, but it can also be a fantastic distraction,” Moore says. “There is a finite amount of bandwidth politically, and the question you ask yourself is, how do you utilize as much of that bandwidth to drive your message?”

But as veteran Republican consultant Patrick Griffin notes, this incident fits right in line with a message that's a growing theme in today's political discourse: That the media should not be trusted.

Griffin says he wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes fodder for more fundraising emails around the country because it fits with the narrative the Trump administration – and increasingly, the local Republican party – has been pushing about bias in journalism.

“This is not some small local newspaper whose reporter turned out to be an activist that misreported something. This is the AP. And the AP stood behind this person,” Griffin says. “It's pretty clear to me that Republicans, and certainly Trump supporters, will make a case that as goes New Hampshire so goes the rest of the AP around the country, and that's not a good thing for ongoing relations between the media and the sitting president or this party.”

Plenda, for her part, is sorry this escalated a much as it has. After years as a reporter, she’s no stranger to dealing with people who disagree with her or her reporting.

“Usually I can talk it out with them, and they may not agree with where I was coming from, but we would both come away with an understanding, and I wouldn't be treated like that,” Plenda says. “I guess that's what it's like to be a reporter now, you know. And it's frightening. It's very frightening.”

For all of the tweeting aimed at her, Plenda said she wishes there’d been time for more direct conversation, face to face, before this incident was given a life of its own online.