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Oppenheim: Bullying The Media

I was 29 years old, in my first few days as a reporter for a TV station in Detroit. My assignment was to meet up with Mayor Coleman Young, the city’s first African American Mayor, and a formidable figure - to put it mildly.

Somewhere downtown, a crowd of reporters - including me - and several camera crews surrounded the Mayor. I found my moment – and shouted out my question.

He looked at me, realizing I was new and said: “Who the (expletive) told you to ask me that question?” Mind you, cameras were rolling. I stuttered – “I did!”

The Mayor repeated himself. “I said – Who the (expletive) told you to ask me that question?” - his expletive more pronounced on the second take. I was red in the face – and thoroughly put down.

Coleman Young was a complex and powerful Mayor. He knew swearing on TV – at least in this context, wouldn’t make the news. And he knew how to intimidate, especially the media. His message to me that day was clear and effective. “I’ve got the power, and you will not challenge me.”

I was reminded of that moment when the Republican candidates attacked the moderators at the CNBC debate. In fairness, they had something of a point - some of the questions were phrased inartfully and arguably kind of dumb.

But the canard this was a left-wing media attack is tiresome. And after the debate, the RNC went further to strong-arm NBC, essentially telling the network that if their reporters don’t ask questions the right way at a scheduled debate in February, the candidates won’t come – and as a result, NBC won’t get a big audience and make money.

Since then, the united front against networks who don’t play along has started to crumble, but that doesn’t change what this ploy is at its core: blackmail.

For sure, the Republicans are playing politics, serving up meat to conservative voters who may respond to attacks on what they see as a liberal, biased press. But this is not just about pandering. It’s about power.

Coleman Young bullied me that day and forced me to change my behavior. He said, if you want me to respond to any question you ask in a reasonable way, you’re going to have to adhere to my rules.

The GOP is doing the same thing.

I’m not shy about criticizing the news business, but the one thing I don’t think any of us should put up with – is politicians who try to make the media behave and ask questions just the way they like.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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