A reporter unwittingly left a voice mail for a GOP candidate. She was fired for what she said.
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 appeared to think she’d hung up. She had not.
“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.”
It’s not clear whether Battel was talking to herself or to other people.
The incident prompted the Daily Tribune to fire Battel later Monday after less than three years on staff, Editor Kate Hessling said.
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.”
Battel could not be reached for comment.
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 — has 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.
The incident inflamed conservative outlets with what they consider evidence of widespread liberal bias in the media, including the Daily Caller, which first reported the story.
Fox News Channel anchor Tucker Carlson asked James about the incident Tuesday evening.
“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 decried media bias on Fox News the same night 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.