Deflecting an ambush

CPAC has always been fertile ground for hidden camera hijinks – like any gathering where like-minded people get together, the attendees tend to let their guard down and speak a little more openly among what they think are their fellow travelers on the right.  So it’s now surprise that Think Progress sent someone in with a camera, looking to get right-of-center people to say some dumb things.

Jesse Watters of Fox News was ready, though.  Check out this video:

In this confrontation, Watters isn’t just a clear winner.  He puts on a clinic on how to handle an unexpected question from a grassroots videographer:

1.  “A smile usually helps.”

Remember Bob Etheridge?  College-aged Republican activists hijacked the North Carolina Congressman with a video ambush last summer, only to have the Congressman rough them up and bark at them a little.  Etheridge couldn’t have looked more like a curmudgeon if he had used the term “dagnabbit” and told the neighborhood kids he was keeping their baseball.

Watters is the opposite, and clearly knows how to be on camera.  When the ambusher, Ben Armbruster, first accosts him, he demands, “Who are you?”  As soon as Watters understands the situation, he warms up, enthusiastically asking, “Is this an ambush?” and playing along to a point.  He jokes with Armbruster but is not openly hostile, understanding how that would look to the audience on the other side of the camera.

2.  Watters gives his answer – regardless of the question.

Even though CPAC is a political event, Watters is not a political figure.  He is a journalist, and as such clearly does not want to get into a discussion about media bias.  That’s why his redirected conversation about the technique of investigative journalism is smart.  Criticizing Armbruster’s equipment, technique, and line of questioning, Watters maintains a conversation that would make as much sense in a journalism department classroom as it does at CPAC (and perhaps more).

3.  “You’re hands are shaking…”

Watters puts down Armbruster frequently, but never the style of interview.  He tells Armbruster he isn’t conducting the interview correctly (“The question is very important.  I just don’t think you’re bringing it with that question”), insults his camera phone, points out that Armbruster looks nervous – but Watters smartly never once complains about having a camera shoved in his face.  In doing so, Watters avoids the hypocrisy of being an ambush journalists decrying ambush journalism – but more important, he avoids a David vs. Goliath media moment pitting Fox News against bloggers.

Because Watters has been on the other side of these questions, he knows exactly what it looks like – and he didn’t succumb to the line of “gotcha” questioning.  If Armbruster’s frustration wasn’t evident enough at the end of the video, his contrived and weak headline – “Jesse Waters Won’t Deny Fox ‘Makes Stuff Up’” – drives it home.   Maybe he should have tried to ambush someone who doesn’t ambush people for a living.

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