Watertown — Our nation would benefit tremendously if we all decided to turn down the hyperbole a notch or two.
Now, I’m holding my breath waiting for that to happen. Despite the fact that extreme rhetoric accomplishes nothing positive, far too many people toss it around just to get attention.
Ken Tingley, editor of the Post-Star newspaper in Glens Falls, recently exchanged vitriol with U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, over an incident last year involving one of her supporters. Mike Kibling, who was involved with a group called North Country Deplorables, pointed a toy gun at Post-Star reporter Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli and made disturbing comments about the newspaper’s staff members.
On Oct. 10, Phalen-Tomaselli wrote this about the encounter: “Just four days ago, at a downtown Glens Falls pro-Trump rally, Kibling cocked his fake semi-automatic weapon, pointed it at a Post-Star reporter and said: ‘Here is my unloaded rifle, Post-Star. Thanks for the calls from the FBI and the BCI (state Bureau of Criminal Investigation).’ After aiming the fake gun’s barrel directly at the reporter’s face, Kibling called the reporter by name through the megaphone and threatened the Glens Falls newspaper. ‘Hang on, Post-Star, we’ve got one coming for you over there too,’ Kibling said.”
Kibling later told North Country Public Radio that he never intended to threaten anyone. But given that you never know who’s going to become violent and who isn’t, the concerns that Tingley expressed over the safety of the company’s employees was understandable.
Stefanik had scheduled several Coffee with Your Congresswoman events in the north country at that time. Kibling said he was contacted by Alex deGrasse, Stefanik’s director of strategic planning. According to an email Kibling sent out, deGrasse conveyed Stefanik’s appreciation for the group’s previous support and asked members to bring friendly faces to the Oct. 11 town hall meeting at the Kingsbury Volunteer Fire Company in Hudson Falls.
Tingley urged Stefanik to visit the Post-Star office to speak with staffers about her connection with Kibling. She never addressed his concerns directly, though she condemned any violence against 21st Congressional District constituents and journalists several times during her town hall meetings. She also stressed the importance of free speech in our nation, both through the efforts of the news media and in public demonstrations.
Stefanik’s office remained evasive about whether or not deGrasse had contacted Kibling. In light of the report that he had made menacing comments about Post-Star employees, perhaps her folks didn’t want to confirm any association.
But Tingley wrote Oct. 13 that just before her town hall meeting in Hudson Falls began, Stefanik verified her staff’s outreach to the controversial activist. Kibling previously told NCPR that he had fabricated part of his email but wouldn’t elaborate on which portions were bogus — although he continued to insist that he was contacted by deGrasse. But then in another odd turn of events, he stood up at the Oct. 11 gathering and said, “I made up the post to generate people to come here.”
Clear as mud, right?
Tingley renewed his charge that Stefanik never satisfied his concerns for the safety of the newspaper’s staff members. On Sunday, he wrote about receiving a fundraising letter from her campaign.
He said Stefanik sounded like she was preparing to go to war with the radical left. She listed some of the Democrats and special interests hell bent on defeating her this year.
On Wednesday, Tingley wrote another column focusing on Stefanik’s fundraising letter. He said the “us against them” tone was uglier than campaign literature from previous public officials.
He concluded his piece with this: “By the end of the letter, I wasn’t sure whether she would be buying campaign ads or bullets.”
That last bit prompted Stefanik to issue a reply: “Four months ago, I unequivocally condemned violence against the press at a community event in Hudson Falls. The Post-Star news editor, Ken Tingley, was in attendance during this statement. Unfortunately, Ken Tingley’s column today ends with a dangerous allusion to gun violence and has no place on the pages of a serious community newspaper. He likens a typical campaign fundraising appeal describing Democrat attacks on President Trump supporters by saying he wasn’t sure if I would be buying campaign ads or bullets. This call to gun violence is shameful, untrue and dangerous. This news editor is well aware of the impact of his words, and it is completely unacceptable. Over the weekend, the same editor published a column accusing me of cheering on violence against the press and of refusing to condemn such violence. This editor knows very well I have unequivocally and strongly condemned threats of violence of any kind, specifically against journalists. We can all respectfully and passionately disagree on policies, but allusions to threats of violence — as Tingley does today — have no place in our community discussions or in print. Readers of our community papers deserve better, and Tingley should apologize for this unacceptable error in judgment.”
Last fall, Stefanik should have contacted Tingley directly and addressed his concerns over potential violence. If she couldn’t visit the newspaper office to speak with staff members, it would have been appropriate of her to send a letter to company employees supporting their right to work without the fear of harassment and physical danger.
Ignoring the newsroom’s anxiety over a perceived threat made by someone affiliated with Stefanik’s office makes her appear indifferent. While the newspaper’s editorial board has often been very critical of her, the people who work there are constituents and deserved a response.
She could have shown she’s the bigger person by rising above the sense of mutual dislike and reaching out to the newspaper’s employees. And if she rejects any “allusions to threats of violence” as she asserted in her statement, she should have called out Kibling by name for his actions.
Be that as it may, Stefanik publicly condemned violence several times during her events. Tingley is wrong to claim that she is responsible for any violence that Kibling may have carried out. And her staff members may not have been aware of the disturbing comments he made to the Star-Post reporter when deGrasse contacted him, so stating that Stefanik cheered on someone who implied violence is unfair.
In her campaign literature, Stefanik could use more of the thoughtful sentiments about the necessary role of the news industry that she expressed in her town hall events. Pointing out specific instances where journalists get it wrong is certainly appropriate.
But making overly broad comments about the “smug media elites” unnecessarily foments distrust. Those of us in this profession need the input and guidance of as many readers as possible, including Stefanik’s supporters, if we’re to properly carry out our duties.
Stefanik’s divisive campaign letter comes at a time when our community leaders need to encourage unity. She’s correct that we “can all respectfully and passionately disagree on policies,” and her belief in this ideal should be reflected this in any correspondence sent in her name.
But politicians often choose politics, especially when it comes to raising cash. When they’re on the stump, they have a knack for forgetting about the civility they promote at formal events.
So while Stefanik’s campaign letter is more alarmist than need be, it’s not out of step by today’s standards for an appeal made to donors. Given his worries about encouraging violence, Tingley’s flippant comment about “ads or bullets” was over the top and really unwise.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.