Memories Pizza: The 'Ambush Interview' That Wasn't

I apparently owe fellow PJ Media contributor Scott Ott a debt of gratitude and like all good journalists I always (cough, cough) pay off my obligations.

You see, it’s been some years – and that’s an understatement – since I attended journalism school so I only learned recently via Mr. Ott that that the old standard practices I adhered to for more than 40 years in the news trade have changed. Given that, I was wondering if he would be so good as to clarify some things for this old scribe.

Is it now considered unethical or somehow improper to enter a business, regardless of locale, and request an interview with the owner regarding the affairs of the day? And, having accomplished that, is it unethical or improper to accurately quote the things that owner had to say?

I raise these questions in the wake of his recent post, which seems to suggest that nosy reporters should just keep their inquiries to themselves.

A quick recap: The Indiana legislature last month passed, and Gov. Mike Pence signed, a so-called religious freedom law that, among other things, prohibited state and local governments from impeding an individual’s ability to exercise his or her religion unless the government could establish a compelling interest.

The legislation made no reference to sexual orientation but some folks, gay rights advocates in particular, insisted it would permit business owners to deny services to gays and lesbians based on religious convictions.

After extended hemming and hawing – we old journalists used to call it backing-and-filling – Pence defended the law and therefore immediately proceeded to change it.

Fine thus far. But during this brouhaha a South Bend, Ind., news outlet, Channel 57, dispatched reporter Alyssa Marino to the small town of Walkerton to do a reaction story. You see, back in the day, this was considered SOP – standard operating procedure – for news outfits. If a newsworthy event occurred in the state (in my case, Kentucky) that carried national ramifications, the editor would kindly suggest we hunt up a local angle. Actually, the request was neither done kindly nor was it a suggestion. Anyway, go find someone who approves/disapproves of what’s going on and write about it.

In this instance the reporter happened upon a seemingly nice and considerate young woman named Crystal O’Connor, whose family operates Memories Pizza. That, to many news folks, would seem to make her a rather average Hoosier – just the sort of person a reporter would like to talk to about a story like this. She then proceeded to ask the woman questions, sans strong-arm tactics, it appears, and the young woman willingly answered.

The report was aired – O’Connor expressed some concern about her religious convictions being compromised if she had to cater a same-sex wedding ceremony, a somewhat remote possibility, and the comments drew some negative reaction. O’Connor also said they would not deny service to gay customers who came in to place an order. Memories Pizza was forced to temporarily close and recently reopened with $800,000 in crowd-funding donations.

Now I learn through Ott (as I noted, it’s been a long time since I sat in Leonard Tipton’s news writing class) that the formerly rather staid and standard practice of asking “real people” questions and then accurately relating their responses is a damnable outrage and that Alyssa Marino obviously is the greatest villain since Saul Alinsky.

Who knew?