The day before this month's big midterm election, Huron Daily Tribune reporter Brenda Battel was calling up candidates to arrange for post-election interviews. That included Republican John James, a U.S. Senate candidate and Iraq war vet who boasted President Donald Trump's endorsement. His campaign had been mired in bad publicity in recent weeks — including gaffes like slipping a swastika into a TV spot, for which he apologized, and accepting campaign money from a group that was linked to a far-right "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Just before 4 p.m., Battel called the James campaign and left a voicemail to try and set up an interview. Then she hung up — or at least she thought she did. In reality, the recording was still going, and Battel was caught making a gaffe of her own.
"Man, if he beats her... Jesus!" Battel said out loud to herself, a reference to James's opponent, incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow. "Fucking John James! Whew! That would suck. I don't think it's going to happen though."
"He's hard to get a hold of," she added. "I hope he doesn't win for that reason."
Battel left the office and headed to her home in Cass City. But shortly after 8 p.m., she started getting notifications on her phone: The James campaign had quickly posted the voicemail to YouTube, and by 7 p.m., Fox News host Tucker Carlson's website The Daily Caller had posted a story about the recording. "It shows you that some media will do anything to keep the status quo and career politicians in power," James' campaign manager Tori Sachs told the website. "The liberal media can't stand the idea of a job creator and combat veteran coming to Washington to shake up the system."
Later that evening, James was the guest on a segment on Carlson's Fox News show. "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."
By the time Battel got home, she got a call from her boss, editor Kate Hessling, indicating that she had been terminated for her actions.
"The Huron Daily Tribune sincerely apologizes to Mr. James and to the public," Hessling wrote in a statement posted to the paper's website. "These statements do not represent the views of the Tribune as a whole, nor do they reflect the actions of a responsible journalist."
"It's imperative that our reporters act professional and neutral when dealing with the public, and that was not done in this situation," Hessling said in an interview with The Washington Post the next day. "And that was inexcusable."
Asked what was going through her head, Battel tells Metro Times by phone that she sometimes talks to herself when she gets stressed out. "Without getting too much into my politics, I was very concerned about the election, as I think a majority of the American public who votes were," she says. "The thought of James winning crossed my mind. I spoke my mind and that concern came out."
Battel says when she got home that night, she disabled her social media accounts, which were already getting flooded with comments. The next morning, she says she turned her Twitter back on in case any media outlets wanted to DM her for comment. Only one did: iMediaEthics.org, to which Battel issued an apology. "While reporting the news, journalists must put their opinions aside and focus on facts," she said. "I was not reporting the news when I made derogatory statements about Mr. James and his campaign. That was 100 percent my opinion, and I did not expect that it would be for public consumption. I obviously have regrets and am embarrassed that it was released."
Looking back, Battel says that though her comments showed a bias against James, she defends her record at the Tribune, saying she had been issued no formal warnings while working at the paper. (Hessling declined further comment when asked by Metro Times.)
"If you want to read a bunch of boring articles about county government, wind turbines, and agriculture, have at my beat and find a biased article," she says. "Wind energy is a very divisive issue here, and I was accused by both sides of being pro-wind and anti-wind. And I think when you're accused by both sides as being biased as a journalist, you are doing your job."
Of the Tribune newsroom as a whole, Battel says the same applies. "We get both sides of that, too," she says. "We get people who say we're liberal, we get people who say we're conservative, which tells me we're doing our job."
As far as the right's allegations that the episode was indicative of widespread "liberal media bias," Battel says the Tribune's was not a particularly polarized newsroom. "I wouldn't have said what I said had I not felt comfortable saying it in that environment," she admits. But she says that doesn't mean the Tribune was liberal as a whole. "I would say those who were outspoken were on the left," she says. "But not everyone was outspoken. There were one or two people I don't even know what their politics were."
Battel points out that just because she had her own biases doesn't mean she was not able to do her job as a reporter. "We're not robots, right?" she says. "About roughly half of people who vote are Democrat, more or less. They're going to end up in your newsroom. People have to accept that."
And the way Battel sees it, she doesn't see how reporters could not have a political bias one way or the other. "Anyone who truly is passionate about something is probably not going to be your average lukewarm moderate," she says.
Battel believes she was fired to appeal to the paper's rural and largely Republican-voting readership. Not everyone was placated by the move, however. "I know of at least one person who, in their words, 'fired' them as their local news source because they fired me," Battel says.
In the end, Battel says she feels somewhat vindicated: Stabenow wound up winning 52.2 percent of the vote to James' 45.8 percent, showing a majority of Michiganders apparently shared Battel's belief that a James win would indeed "suck."
Still, it's hard not to view the incident as a win in Trump's ongoing war against a critical mainstream media, which he calls "fake news." Also this month, Trump revoked the press credentials of CNN's Jim Acosta without due process, though a federal judge ordered it be temporarily restored amid a legal battle between the network and the White House over First Amendment rights.
The sparring comes amid a backdrop of a severely weakened media industry that has been badly wounded in the 21st century, and that has seen local newspapers make staffing cuts as subscriptions declined and readers and advertisers go to the internet, where ad revenues are traditionally less than they were in print. And these forces have been felt at the Tribune, a small Hearst-owned paper which has just three full-time writers and a total of five staff members.
Battel says her career has been a bit of a bumpy road since graduating from Western Michigan University more than 20 years ago, where she minored in journalism and wrote for her college paper. Later, she worked as a freelance journalist.
She started full-time at the Tribune in 2016, but was making less than a $26,000 salary — she says she had to start working weekends at the local Dollar General just to make ends meet. After she got fired, she says the store graciously increased her hours while she looks for a new gig.
But Battel isn't sure she wants to continue to work as a journalist.
"I would love to, but after the damage to my reputation, I don't know if it will happen," she says. "I have references lined up for another job. I've applied to places."
She quotes lyrics from "Release" by Pearl Jam, which she says is her favorite band: "I'll ride the wave where it takes me."
"If I could go back, I wouldn't change anything because I am where I am today, and I'm OK with where I am today," she says. "If I had successfully hung up that phone, I would still be extremely overworked, underpaid, and putting my heart and soul into a job that may have harmed me more than I realized at that time."
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