Offensive or appropriate? We talked to the reporter who questioned Mueller on Easter

April 22, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

MSNBC freelance reporter Mike Viqueira was trying to land the interview that nobody else has in close to two years. That’s why he confronted Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he and his wife left a Washington, D.C., church service on Easter Sunday. Viqueira is taking heat on social media for confronting Mueller after church, but some journalists say Mueller is such a high-profile public figure that he is fair game.

There’s a word for this: optics. It just looks bad for a TV reporter to confront somebody coming out of Easter Sunday church and peppering him with questions. It affirms the stereotype that journalists are just out for a scoop at any cost.

In a phone conversation with Poynter.org, Viqueira said, “Whether it is Easter Sunday or Wednesday outside an office building, if a newsmaker is in our sight, we ask them questions.”

Viqueira said he greeted Mueller and his wife, then asked a series of questions, broadcast on Sunday:

“Will you testify before Congress?” Viqueira asked.

“No comment,” Mueller said.

Viqueira followed up with, “Are you sure about that, sir?”

There was no response, so the journalist asked, “If he were anybody but the president, would Mr. Trump be indicted?”

Mueller waited for his wife to unlock the car.

Viqueira said he wished Mueller and his wife a happy Easter, and he said Ann Mueller responded by returning the wish.

Viqueira said on the air, “Some people would characterize this as an ambush interview of a man coming out of Easter services at church and some passers-by were not happy that we were doing that.”

Viqueira is an old hand at covering Washington politics. He started 29 years ago at Japanese TV channel NHK and worked as a network correspondent for NBC and Al Jazeera. He is the former chairman of the Radio and TV Correspondent’s Association. Now he runs a media company, Minton Media, and freelances for MSNBC. He told Poynter.org that he thought it was justified to approach Mueller because the prosecutor has not been seen or heard from for 22 months.

He said he understands why viewers might think it is out of line to approach anyone as they leave church, but, “If we are doing our jobs right, it is not always rude and insensitive,” he said. “Sometimes it is required” to ask questions even when it be seen by some as an intrusion.

When MSNBC first aired the video Sunday morning, the anchor called it “Breaking News.” The network announced “Special Counsel Robert Mueller was just spotted coming out of church by our very own NBC’s Mike Viqueira.” Viqueira laughed as he describes Mueller’s refusal to be interviewed as “being tight-lipped,” but he explained, “This is history in the making and obviously he is reticent. He has never been one to really hold forth in a situation like that before the press.”

Viqueria said he “had the opportunity before to stake him out when he was the director of the FBI,” and got the same response as he did this time.

MSNBC anchor Ava Joy congratulated Mike: “Great questions, very good questions, because that is exactly what the American people want to know.”

Is Mueller fair game?

There is something especially intrusive about confronting a person, even a public person, as he or she is leaving a church service. I am not one to lay down “always” and “nevers” because I can imagine a scenario where a person of power has avoided answering important questions and the journalist is trying to get to the truth of a story.

It’s not completely out of the question that Mueller might have provided a nugget of news. Imagine if he had answered the question about testifying before Congress by saying, “I look forward to it.”

What if the journalist had been a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a TV camera in tow? Would that have been less intrusive and more defensible?

There are alternatives that MSNBC could have considered.

Viqueira could have approached Mueller and asked him if he was willing to talk. If the answer had been “yes,” he could have turned the camera on and done the interview. If “no,” then the attempt was a bust and the TV crew moved on. The danger, of course, is that if someone accused the journalist of being rude there would be no video proof otherwise.

Another alternative might have been if MSNBC believed the confrontation was justifiable, then turned out to produce nothing newsworthy, then just air nothing. Viqueria told me that he did not consider that alternative in this case.  The problem, once again, is that by not airing the whole confrontation, the journalists might appear to be covering up or editing what they did.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics includes balancing seeking truth against the harm that will be caused by the search for the truth.  Does the truth that the journalist is after outweigh harm that comes with intruding on one’s privacy?  The code urges journalists to “act independently,” meaning journalists should be independent of competitive pressures.

So, what’s the answer? Start with the questions.

At Poynter, we often ask a series of questions to help journalists arrive at a defensible ethical decision. You might find these questions useful as you think through what your newsroom would have done in this instance.

  1. What do I know? What do I need to know?
  2. What are my ethical concerns?
  3. What is my journalistic purpose?
  4. What organizational policies and professional guidelines should I consider?
  5. How can I include other people, with different perspectives and diverse ideas, in the decision-making process?
  6. Who are the stakeholders — those affected by my decision? What are their motivations? Which are legitimate?
  7. What if the roles were reversed? How would I feel if I were in the shoes of one of the stakeholders?
  8. What are the possible consequences of my actions? Short term? Long term?
  9. What are my alternatives to maximize my truth-telling responsibility and minimize harm?
  10. Can I clearly and fully justify my thinking and my decision? To my colleagues? To the stakeholders? To the public?

The answers may not change your decision to confront Mueller or not. But answering those questions gives you a foundation to make a decision that goes beyond yes or no.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code also urges journalists to be “accountable and accessible.” It should be noted that when I contacted Viqueira, he answered my questions for the record, even though he knows a story about his case is sure to keep the conversation about his reporting alive for another news cycle.

My take on this is that MSNBC did not have a justifiable reason to stake out and confront Mueller as he left church. Mueller has not avoided responsibility. Mueller is doing exactly what he should have done. He has conducted a grand jury investigation, which is by statute, secret. He issued a 400-page report on his findings and didn’t try the case in the media. He has not spoken with Congress yet, but may do that soon. If, in the future, he refuses to testify before Congress, if he avoids any further clarification about why he ruled as he did in his investigation, then journalists have more justification to press for answers.

Journalists who have sided with Viqueira say he was doing his job, asking questions of the biggest newsmaker of the week. They further argue that a person of Mueller’s prominence and experience could have avoided any media exposure by arranging to have a private exit or security. And they say certainly, Mueller must have considered that he might be asked about the investigation out in public, so the intrusion was not much of an intrusion or surprise.

Once MSNBC decided to confront Mueller, I think the network had an obligation to tell the public what transpired. But the way it reported the interaction should have been measured and minimal so as not to make it appear Mueller was avoiding questions he should be answering.

In my view, MSNBC created “breaking news” that was, in fact, no news, except that the special prosecutor left church when the Easter service ended.