By Nancy West
Freelance reporter Melanie Plenda says her life has been turned upside down since she accepted an Associated Press assignment to cover a NH GOP fundraiser in Nashua on May 18 that featured Kellyanne Conway, counsel to President Trump, as the speaker.
Plenda has since been reviled by the NH GOP, accused of sneaking into the event that was closed to the press, been the brunt of critical news articles and ugly social media and email rants not to mention a death threat.
And ironically, Plenda said, she supplied the notes for the AP story that infuriated the NH Republican party, but didn’t pen the final four paragraphs that were published based on her notes.
“That’s the real kicker,” Plenda said. “I didn’t write the story,” adding she was supposed to be taking it easy on maternity leave after giving birth eight weeks ago. Some unexpected expenses prompted her to accept the $150 AP assignment.
“I didn’t point that out before because it didn’t occur to me,” Plenda said. “My assignment was to send notes and quotes.”
Plenda was criticized by NH GOP communications consultant Patrick Hynes who accused her of sneaking into the event that was closed to the press and of underestimating the size of the crowd at 150 people in her report. Her life has been in turmoil ever since, she said.
She was prepared to say she was a reporter if asked knowing the press wasn’t invited that night. But no one asked, she said, and in fact one woman invited her inside the Nashua Radisson grand ballroom.
The 728 words in Plenda’s notes were boiled down to 143 words that AP published with no byline. AP later attributed the story to Plenda and corrected it after the NH GOP said the crowd estimate should have been much higher. The correction said the packed room seated 500 people.
Plenda said she emailed her much longer notes to AP’s East Desk after covering the fundraising event and someone else wrote the final story based on her notes.
In her notes to AP, Plenda had a different take on the crowd size, but included the same number. She wrote: “… Conway spoke to a packed house (roughly 150 people or so).” Her notes also contained more full quotes attributed to Conway at the event and other details of the evening.
AP told Plenda, who has freelanced for many news outlets including InDepthNH.org, the Union Leader and NHPR, that she could no longer cover politics for them after a Facebook post surfaced written by Plenda on her personal page that revealed her anti-Trump sentiments soon after he was elected.
“I don’t have any beef with the AP. I feel like they made the choices they did based on their policies,” Plenda said. She does have a beef with the people who have attacked her on social media and in emails calling her names like “ideologically rotten whore” and “stupid slut.”
It was terrifying when one person said, “We know where you live,” Plenda said.
When the story was published, Plenda said her immediate focus was responding to her AP editor about the NH GOP complaints. The story has since taken on a life of its own with articles, mentions and blogs in the New York Times, Washington Post and Breitbart News.
Hynes recently told the Concord Monitor he will go after Plenda to pay for a $500 ticket to the event indicating the controversy is likely to continue.
Neither Hynes, nor NH GOP chairman Jeanie Forrester responded to requests for comment. Gov. Chris Sununu also didn’t respond.
AP spokesman Lauren Easton wouldn’t say who compiled the story from Plenda’s notes. “We refrain from commenting on personnel matters,” Easton said in an email, which also said “See the corrected story here.”
Plenda has maintained that she was standing by an open door at the event when someone she believed to be an organizer invited her in. Plenda said she recently identified the woman from various Facebook pages as Ashley Walukevich, who she believes to be a field director for the NH GOP. Attempts to reach Walukevich on Saturday were unsuccessful.
Plenda said she didn’t ask her if she was a reporter and Plenda didn’t volunteer that fact, but did tell the woman she didn’t have a ticket. Plenda said she was still invited in, stood at the back of the room and taped Conway’s speech using a recorder in her purse because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.
“I would like for the woman who invited me in to just say that I didn’t lie. I didn’t lie,” Plenda said.
‘Time to move on’
Former Republican party chairman Steve Duprey said Plenda has apologized for underestimating the crowd size. He would have liked to see her apologize, too, for entering the ballroom without first stating that she was a reporter, but added it’s time to let it go.
Duprey said he doesn’t know Walukevich, but even if she did invite Plenda into the ballroom, it was Plenda’s responsibility to identify herself as a reporter.
“Every other member of the New Hampshire press respected the request that they not attend,” Duprey said. He went on to condemn people who have since attacked, shamed or said unkind things to Plenda on social media.
“She shouldn’t have done it, but we should move on and let it go,” Duprey said. “I don’t think the state, country, democracy or politics are well served by attacking the press.”
Breitbart News called Plenda an activist; one headline said: “Associated Press Terminates Melanie Plenda, Leftist Activist Hired to Sneak into KellyAnne Conway Event.”
The article said: “Her termination comes as a Nov. 10, 2016, Facebook post she wrote—in which she pledged resistance to then-incoming President Donald J. Trump—was found to be in direct violation of the AP’s editorial standards.”
Washington Post’s Erik Wemple recounted the incident in an opinion piece and responded to criticism that reporters shouldn’t attend events that are closed to the press.
“We journalists are not party to the rules of the NH GOP, or the national GOP or the national Democratic Party or whatever group doesn’t want us reporting on its proceedings. Our role — our rules — mandate that we cover public events,” Wemple wrote.
Two NH senators
Two state senators – one a Democrat and one Republican – saw the controversy from different perspectives.
State Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, said: “People were really engaged. (Conway) was fun and got the crowd laughing. Everyone was in good spirits.”
As to AP’s reporting, Avard said: “It was a private event. It was a dirty tactic to sneak in.”
But more than that, Plenda’s actions confirmed the suspicion that the media is out to hurt the GOP, Avard said. “It’s fake reporting. All it does is confirm the suspicion the media is acting like the opposition party. It’s disappointing,” Avard said.
It’s the same narrative playing out over and over again, he said, adding it’s aimed against President Trump.
“(Trump’s) definitely a maverick. He’s an outsider and I think for the most part the establishment is being challenged. We applaud him for that and hopefully he’ll get some things done,” Avard said.
State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, a former reporter and former Democratic party chairman, said the whole incident shines a negative light on politics and the press.
“If you make something closed to the press, you are inviting these things to occur. Let everybody come in and let the chips fall,” Woodburn said.
He mentioned the $500 Hynes said he will get Plenda to pay for a ticket.
“It gets ridiculous on the heels of a congressman-elect body-slamming a reporter for asking a question. You’d think they would want to stop feeding that story, but seems kind of fitting in these Trump times,” Woodburn said.
He was referring to Greg Gianforte who won a special election in Montana for the state’s seat in the House of Representatives, a day after he was charged with misdemeanor assault for “body-slamming” a Guardian reporter.
Woodburn said the NH GOP also tried to keep the press at bay during visits from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
“They snuck them in,” Woodburn said, adding there is a real Republican aversion now to the press.
“I don’t think the New Hampshire media is aggressive enough, no offense. It’s not like we have an overly aggressive media in New Hampshire. It’s a sad commentary on journalism and politics and where they intersect,” Woodburn said.
Some Republicans are afraid that Trump is going to bring the brand down in New Hampshire, he said.
“I would not say there’s a lot for love for Donald Trump among Republicans,” Woodburn said. “There is a lot of cowardice.”
Plenda, Woodburn said, was doing her job aggressively. “She should be commended.”
Plenda won’t pay
Plenda said no one from the NH GOP has contacted her about paying for a $500 ticket.
“I’m waiting for the bill and I don’t intend to pay it. They can take me to court,” Plenda said. She said she was following her editor’s directives and believes she acted appropriately that night.
After 20 years as a reporter, Plenda said she hopes to salvage her reputation. The people fueling the story just want to intimidate, control and abuse people, she said.
“It’s outrageous. And it would silence a legitimate journalist,” Plenda said. “And that’s frightening.”
Nancy West is a reporter and founder of InDepthNH.org, NH’s nonprofit news website.