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‘Today it was me’: Local journalist attacked by GOP, Breitbart

KEENE, N.H. Melanie Plenda, a freelancer from the Granite State, never could have imagined a 139-word story would result in online attacks and at least one veiled threat.

“I am a good journalist, I’m a responsible journalist, and I’m someone who firmly believes that all opinions deserve to be out there and deserve a fair airing,” Plenda told the Reformer. In mid-May, Plenda received an assignment from the New Hampshire AP bureau to cover a fundraiser for the New Hampshire GOP that was public but closed to the media. Kellyanne Conway was at the event, and Plenda’s editor at the AP encouraged her to go and try to get an interview with Conway, which was confirmed in an email exchange Plenda shared with the Reformer. Plenda told the Reformer she asked a security guard if she could hang around outside of the event. He said she could. Then, Plenda said, a staff member let her in, even though Plenda said she didn’t have a ticket. However, Plenda did not identify herself as a journalist. Following the event, Plenda submitted her notes, from which the AP wrote up a 139-word story, even though she told her editor at the AP that it was a pretty bland event. In her notes, she wrote that Conway was making “snarky comments” about Hillary Clinton. Had she written the story, Plenda told the Reformer, she wouldn’t have used the adjective “snarky.” The AP version noted that Conway told the audience to “ignore” Trump’s critics. She also said that people working two to three jobs were the people who turned the presidential election.

But when asked by her editor to estimate the crowd size, Plenda, who admitted she’s never been “a great head counter,” said about 150 people attended the fundraiser. Six days following the publication of the brief, the AP corrected the story, reporting the audience was closer to 500 people. The Nashua, N.H., Fire Marshall’s Office told the Reformer the Grand Ballroom at the Radisson is permitted for 513 people. But trouble for Plenda began right after the AP published the report. “I have been harassed, threatened, my career put in jeopardy, my livelihood put in jeopardy all because I got a crowd count wrong,” Plenda said. The New Hampshire GOP posted two tweets condemning Plenda and AP for the coverage. It said Plenda had “conspired” to get into the event, and called the story “garbage reporting.” Then Breitbart news got wind of the story and called her a “so-called reporter” and characterized her as a “left-wing activist” after a GOP operative in New Hampshire discovered a November post on Plenda’s personal Facebook page, urging her friends to act after Donald Trump won the presidential election. She wrote that people need to support the ACLU, oppose legislation that marginalizes others and run for office. “We don’t need to be obstructionist just for the sake, but we do need to peacefully fight for what is right,” she wrote.

The post was shared by a friend, which made it public. Other than the post, Plenda said she’s careful to keep her political opinions to herself. She does not go to marches or to rallies, and would hardly describe herself as an activist.

“I have never, never insinuated my own beliefs into a story,” she said. “It would be like saying that because I’m Catholic I could never write about someone who’s Jewish, or Muslim or a Buddhist. I can certainly divorce myself from my own personal thoughts and feelings to look at someone else’s point of view and to write about it objectively. That’s my job and that’s what I’ve done for almost 20 years.”

She is a strong proponent of reporters “living in the middle.” Reporters need to ask themselves how they can do better, Plenda said. She acknowledged that a lot of reporters, especially the ones heavily in the public eye, do have biases. “I think they color the public’s opinion of us generally. We, as reporters, need to do a better job of learning how to keep bias out of our reporting … we owe that to the public.”

Since the NHGOP Twitter tagged Plenda by name and Breitbart reported the story, she’s been getting a flood of comments online. People calling her a slut, fat, ugly; one email noted “Do you think we will take your [expletive] forever? We know where you live.”

Plenda has covered events from the New Hampshire GOP before and described her working relationship with the organization as good. She believes what’s happened to her isn’t indicative of the entire GOP in New Hampshire.

“This is out of character,” she said. She believes whoever coordinated the social media attack on her is “taking a page from the national playbook.”

One Breitbart headline stated Plenda was fired from the AP, but that was misleading. Plenda has been told by her AP editor that she can no longer cover politics, promising her he will continue to assign her other stories, just not politics. Plenda said that while the attacks against her are disturbing and threaten her livelihood, it’s really indicative of the onslaught on the institution of journalism. “Today it was me and the GOP,” she said. “Tomorrow it will be another reporter and a school board.”

Despite the personal and professional attacks, Plenda said she doesn’t regret her decision to cover the event. “No one gets to tell the press to stay home when everyone else is allowed to go … When we see this happening, when we see any entity closing a meeting, or a discussion closing a public event to us we have to stand up and say no.”

Before Plenda began her freelancing career in 2008, she worked for the Keene Sentinel. Since then she has written for the Brattleboro Reformer, the Concord Monitor, NHPR, The New Hampshire Business Review, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, The Atlantic and The Associated Press among other places.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.

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