A year ago, Joe Biden’s staff deleted my pictures

The weirdest part was when Fox News’ Bret Baier mentioned my name. From his March 14, 2013, broadcast:

“A student reporter who was forced by Vice President Biden’s staff to delete pictures he took at a Biden appearance has received an apology. University of Maryland student journalist Jeremy Barr was covering a domestic violence event attended by Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Senator Ben Cardin.”

Vice President Biden speaks in Rockville, Md., on March 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

One year ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s journalism school. As part of the program’s capstone, I worked four days a week as a politics reporter for the school’s Capital News Service. I primarily covered the state’s congressional delegation, but I also reported on national politics as related to the Free State.

“Bidengate,” as probably someone on Twitter called it, started out as just a run-of-the-mill administration news conference on March 13. Biden and Holder were on hand to announce a domestic violence grant program, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Ben Cardin got some mic time because their state’s program was viewed as a national model.

The fun didn’t start until after the event concluded, and I milled around the room, killing time and watching Biden shake hands with some of the domestic violence advocates in attendance. That’s when I was approached by a young staffer and asked to delete my photos.

Much to my surprise, she told me that I had violated protocol by sitting in the general audience section rather than at the press table at the back of the room. As such, she said, I had gained an unfair advantage over the rest of the corps.

I protested — there was no signage, I was given no seating guidance, and I wore my press credentials at all times — but she was forceful. “I need to watch you delete those photos. All of them.” She even made me flip through the photos on my iPhone, probably concluding rightfully that I had an adorable baby niece. But no, no secret snapshots of the vice president.

She also essentially held me against my will, as I was told to wait while she called her supervisor and asked if she should also delete my audio recordings from the event. I was relieved to be able to keep those, as they were vital for my story.

Several times I thought about just bolting, but I had never Irish-exited an administration event before and didn’t know if I’d get tailed on my way home a la “House of Cards.”

Upon returning to my office, I wrote a straight news story about the grant announcement. That’s when I was told that the dean of my j-school, who’d been briefed on what happened, had written a letter to Biden’s press secretary Kendra Barkoff, asking her to apologize to us both. She immediately did so by phone.

My bureau chief then asked another student to interview me about what happened, and we put out a story, noting that the administration had apologized. The local Patch sites picked it up a few hours later, but that was nothing out of the ordinary.

I knew the story might go viral, but I hoped it wouldn’t. I was in the midst of job interviews at the time and wanted to be able to focus on doing good work at the bureau and getting employed.

That night, at class, I searched my name plus “Biden” on Twitter and kept hitting refresh. One hour in, nothing. And then, something.

At 7:58 p.m., Politico reporter Ken Vogel retweeted a Patch tweet about the incident, adding three words that would become the frame for how the event was viewed: “Most transparent ever.”

From there, a bunch of other reporters picked it up. That night it was written up by New York Magazine, and by the next morning almost every political news site and general interest news site had an item about it.

Some outlets, especially Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy, had a good ol’ time with the story, viewing it as yet another example of the Obama administration trampling on the freedom of the press and the Constitution at large. Hot Air picked up where Vogel left off, headlining their story: “Most transparent administration evah sorry for making journo delete photos.”

And that’s when things really got weird. I started getting phone calls and emails from RT America — Kremlin-funded Russia Today, that is.

So no, as much as I appreciated the offer, I decided not to come into their Washington, D.C. studio and talk about Big Bad Joe Biden and the Anti-Transparency All-Stars. But they kept trying, even days after the incident.

I did get interviewed by local television stations, and awkwardly, clumsily offered Journalism 101 cliches like “I didn’t want to be part of the story” and “my goal was to report the news,” which were actually true.

Looking back, there were positives and negatives. A few weeks after everything went down, Ron Sachs, president of the White House News Photographers Association, invited me to come to the White House and photograph a gun control event with the rest of the corps. Which was a great experience.

In interviews, my bureau chief stuck up for me, which felt good. And I appreciated the way other journalists expressed outrage online and stuck up for me and came to my defense. This sense of camaraderie, of fellowship, among journalists was on full display.

These journalists, they didn’t know me — but they knew I was a reporter, and they were reporters, and reporters have to look out for one another and make sure that the government isn’t stopping us from doing our job and fulfilling our responsibility to the American people — or something like that.

(I also had my share of online detractors, of course. A commenter on the CNS story wrote that the “journalist wannaby” — me — “ should never work in the media again, he has no balls.” On Twitter, I was called a coward for “backing down to a woman.”)

One year later, I often think about the Biden staffer who ordered me to delete the photos. To my knowledge, Dana Rosenzweig wasn’t banished to Siberia or anything like that. And while she wasn’t thrown under the bus, she was probably thrown close to it.

In responding to press requests the next day, Barkoff said: “This was an unfortunate mistake by a staffer who does not regularly interact with the press.”

That language was familiar to me, and to a host of political journalists.

In March 2011, an Orlando Sentinel reporter was assigned to cover a $500-per-person fundraiser at the home of a big-time Democratic donor in Florida. Upon arriving, the reporter was asked to wait in a “holding room” until Biden arrived and began speaking. Well, the holding room turned out to be a storage closet, which didn’t go over well with the reporter.

When the news broke, Biden’s press secretary at the time apologized for the incident and called it “the unfortunate mistake of an inexperienced staffer.” So, two years later, another embarrassing mistake, another inexperienced staffer. (Barkoff did not respond to a request for comment.)

I don’t think there’s an administration-wide conspiracy to shut down the press, and that meme seems to have died down after Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei tried to make it a thing.

But my view of what happened that day one year ago is still pretty much the same. Rosenzweig seemed to be enforcing someone’s orders, and for it, she got burnt. (I reached out to her via Facebook, but she didn’t respond.)

When you Google her name now, it’s story after story about her shaking down a hard-working news journalist Who Was Just Trying to Bring the News to The People.

I still don’t appreciate what she did or how she did it, but I sincerely hope our run-in won’t mar her professional record forever. After all, I, too, know what it’s like to have the Internet attach an incident to your name.

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  • erikdeckers

    So what would have happened if you had just said no, and stuck to your guns? If you had something about it being a First Amendment issue and asked to speak to someone with more authority than the staffer? I’m not questioning your actions, I’m actually wondering what would have happened.