“It's important not to instigate the person you're interviewing,” Fields says.
Video of conservative activist Steven Crowder's tussle with a union member in Michigan this week, which led to the Fox News contributor being punched, and knocked to the ground, has gone viral in the conservative media — but it's being panned by other career mischief-makers in the media who believe Crowder fumbled his performance.
Michelle Fields, a former video journalist for The Daily Caller who used to regularly cover Occupy Wall Street, said Crowder appeared to violate one of the first rules of this kind of stunt reporting: Don't taunt the protesters.
"Going to liberal rallies and confronting people is a delicate situation," Fields said. "It’s important not to taunt because you’re just putting yourself at risk."
Fields said she generally got good material simply by letting the demonstrators speak for themselves.
"It’s important not to instigate the person you’re interviewing," she said. "You don’t have to make them look stupid. I never went in trying to make them feel stupid. What I usually do is try to make them feel comfortable and gain their trust."
Fields only got into physical trouble once on the job, when New York City police officers handled her roughly at a protest.
At The Caller, Fields was one of a genre of journalist/activists who make a career out of questioning their ideological foes on camera with varying degrees of agression. The libertarians at We Are Change frequently accost politicians in spin rooms and outside conferences and bombard them with questions about 9/11 Truth and drone strikes. Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) was sent to Mississippi by Bill Maher, where she asked stereotypically rural Southern voters their opinions about Barack Obama. Reporters from ThinkProgress often seek out Republican politicians to drill them about sometimes obscure issues.
Politically charged demonstrations — like the the Union protests in Michigan, or the Tea Party rallies of 2010 — frequently draw these career confrontationists. The Crowder incident, though, stands out as the most notable example of the genre this year.
Since the incident, Crowder, who is also a comedian, has done a mini-media blitz, even challenging his aggressor to a public fight to benefit charity.
Sam Seder, a liberal radio host formerly with Air America, was thrown out of the Republican National Convention in 2004 while shooting a video in which he searched for Log Cabin Republicans to interview. He, too, cautioned against the kind of provocation that could have led to the attack on Crowder.
"I don’t perceive myself as a provocateur," Seder said. "I just basically let people talk and give an unvarnished view of their perspective because I think it’s pretty rare when we get it unfiltered."
"I don’t get the sense that [Crowder] was there to find someone to do a reasonable interview," Seder said. "He was looking for a narrative that these were union thugs and he kept provoking people till he got what he wanted."