Kelly campaign attacks KGUN9 News in response to a tough viewer question

GOP contender Jesse Kelly answers questions during a half-hour studio interview at KGUN9.

Kelly campaign attacks KGUN9 News in response to a tough viewer question

CREATED May 23, 2012 - UPDATED: May 23, 2012

Update:  In the wake of this and other KGUN9 stories on this issue, ALIPAC has redoubled its attacks on KGUN9 News.  For the latest, click this link.

Reporters:  Forrest Carr , Jennifer Waddell and Marcelino Benito

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Why did GOP Congressional contender Jesse Kelly accept an endorsement during his last campaign from a controversial political action committee?

If you're a journalist in Tucson and you dare to ask that question, be prepared to have angry fingers jabbed in your face, your professionalism impugned, and interviews canceled.

Around midday Wednesday, KGUN9 News posted a story on line previewing a sit-down interview with Kelly scheduled for KGUN9 News at 5.  The preview noted that when KGUN9 News anchor Jennifer Waddell asked Kelly a tough question that a KGUN9 viewer had submitted, Kelly's spokesman became outraged and interrupted the studio session.

Within 30 minutes of that preview story going live on, the aide in question called the KGUN9 newsroom to continue the attack.  John Ellinwood accused 9 On Your Side of "gotcha" journalism, then canceled a pre-debate interview that had been previously scheduled for 3:00 PM that afternoon.

As part of 9 On Your Side's Project Red, White and Blue political coverage commitment, KGUN9 News has been interviewing candidates for the upcoming Congressional District 8 race.  This is the contest to replace Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who resigned due to injuries sustained in the January 8 mass shooting.  On Tuesday KGUN9 News presented an extended interview with Democratic challenger Ron Barber.  On Thursday KGUN9 viewers will hear from Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis.

Wednesday was Kelly's turn.   A few days ago he sat down with Waddell in the KGUN9 studios for a discussion on topics ranging from health care to jobs to gasoline prices to taxes, to be broadcast this week. 

In most respects, the interview session at KGUN9 was routine -- Kelly was cordial and professional throughout.  But in one other respect, it was very different from the interviews Waddell conducted with Kelly's opponents.  About a half hour into it, Kelly's spokesman stopped the interview.

Ellinwood was sitting to the side off camera at the time.   He interrupted Waddell and announced that he was stopping the interview because of a question Waddell had just asked.  That question, which a KGUN9 viewer had submitted, sought an explanation for an endorsement Kelly had accepted from a controversial anti-illegal immigration group known as ALIPAC.  Ellinwood objected to viewer's use of the word "recently" to describe Kelly's acceptance -- Ellinwood strenuously insisted that the word did not fairly describe something that had happened in 2010. 

Waddell tried to explain the nature and source of the question, but  Ellinwood talked over her.

Kelly sat politely listening.   Finally he held his hand up and told Ellinwood, "It's all right."   Waddell then invited Ellinwood to join her and Kelly on the interview set.   In response, Kelly held up his hand again, signalling Ellinwood to stand down.  Ellinwood did so and allowed the interview to continue.

Waddell turned to Kelly and asked the question again, this time specifying that the word "recently" meant "2010."  Kelly then declared the question to be "out of bounds" and declined to answer it.  Waddell wrapped up the interview a short time later.

However, even though Waddell had corrected the wording of the viewer's question in response to Ellinwood's objections, after the interview Ellinwood continued his verbal assault as the group walked down the hallway to the KGUN9 lobby.  Speaking in angry tones while jabbing his finger in Waddell's face,  and using some choice terms, Ellinwood continued to attack the question and Waddell's professionalism for having dared to ask it.  

Kelly, who remained cordial, did not join in, but nor did he intervene.

The exchange in the hallway and lobby was not captured on camera, but the studio interruption occured as production crew members were recording the session for use on air.   Unedited video of that exchange is available in the upper left corner of this page.  A transcript is pasted at the end of this story.   (In addition, links to the full Kelly interview and also Tuesday's Ron Barber interview can be found in the "related articles" section beneath the photos at left.)

Within a half hour of KGUN9 News posting the preview version of this story early Wednesday afternoon, Ellinwood called the KGUN9 newsroom.  KGUN9 news director Forrest Carr returned the call. 

In this exchange, Ellinwood continued his attack.  But instead of focusing on the timeliness of the question as he had done that day in the studio, now his objection was that Waddell had used "incendiary language."    In her question, Waddell had pointed out that some had criticized ALIPAC as being supported by neo-Nazis, a term Ellinwood now said he found to be inflammatory.  Ellinwood said that after the interview, "I told her clearly that such incendiary language was out of bounds," finishing his sentence with the same terms Kelly had used to justify ducking the question.

Ellinwood continued, "You are scheduled to do an interview at 3.  I just want to know where you guys are coming from as a news organization.  Is there going to be incendiary 'gotcha' language or are you just going to cover the news?"

Carr noted that the question Waddell had posed dealt with a legitimate political issue.   Ellinwood didn't buy it.   "It was from two years ago," he said.  "You already did your story two years ago.  You are rehashing a story you covered two years ago."

Ellinwood asked to speak off the record.  Carr declined.  After a long pause, Ellinwood finally said,  "I am extremely disappointed in your news organization.  I think your journalistic standards are very low.  And I'm going to end this call."

Ellinwood then hung up.  Seconds later, he called the KGUN9 News assignment desk and canceled the 3:00 PM interview.

Loyal KGUN9 viewers know that as part of its Viewer Advocacy News philosophy, 9 On Your Side frequently features viewer questions and comments in news coverage.   The group the KGUN9 viewer wanted to ask Kelly about in this case is a political action committee called "Americans for Legal Immigration."  ALIPAC has been denounced by the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and by Senator John McCain, a prominent leader of Kelly's own party.  Some of those critics -- McCain among them -- have in the past accused ALIPAC of having ties to white supremacists and the like.  The Southern Poverty Law Center again included ALIPAC on its recently-updated list of "extremist groups."

Regardless of what did or did not happen in 2010, there is no question about whether the issue is still current today.   Recently  -- and "recently" in this case means last week -- ALIPAC renewed its endorsement of Kelly. 

Later in the afternoon the Kelly camp rethought its decision to put KGUN9 News on a "do not call" list, and offered to reschedule the Kelly interview.    KGUN9 reporter Marcelino Benito met with Kelly shortly before Wednesday evening's Arizona Daily Star CD8 debate.   Toward the end of that inteview, Benito asked the ALIPAC question again. 

Kelly politely deflected it.

Here is a transcript of the entire exchange between Kelly, Ellinwood and Waddell:

Waddell:  We have something from one of our viewers again.  This is Joe Evano: "Recently you accepted the endorsement of the Americans for Legal Immigration group. Senator John McCain and the Anti-Defamation League have denounced --

Ellinwood:  (off camera, interrupting): I want to stop you. 

Waddell:  Oh --

Ellinwood:  That's false.

Waddell:  OK --

Ellinwood:  He did not accept recently.

Waddell:  This is  --

Ellinwood (interrupting):  No.  It's false.  That was from 2010.  So would you please read some correct answers?

Waddell:  Well, this is not an 'answer.'  This is something --

Ellinwood (interrupting):  That was not recent.

Waddell:  Hang on just one second.  Do you want to come into the shot --

Kelly: (holding up his hand):  John. 

Waddell: Because this is all --

Kelly (to Ellinwood):  It's all right.  It's all right.

Waddell (to Ellinwood, still off camera):  If you want to come in and join the conversation, that's fine.

Kelly (holds up his hand a second time):  John.

Waddell (to Ellinwood):  This is from a viewer.  (To Kelly).  So I will let you address this.

Kelly:  You can ask it again.

Waddell:  I will ask the question and you can address it how you choose.  So Joe Evano says, recently you accepted the endorsements of the Americans for Legal Immigrations group -- he's saying this was in 2010 -- Senator John McCain and the Anti-Defamation League have denounced the group for being backed by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Why then did you accept that endorsement? This is from Joe Evano.

Kelly:  It was in 2010. This election is about jobs, and the economy, and lower gas prices. Frankly it's completely out of bounds.

Waddell:  Ok. Thank you for your response on that.