Think piece from guilt files: The ethics of ambushing Robert Mueller after Easter worship rites

It’s one of those surreal scenes that’s hard to imagine ever happened — but it did. More than once.

The setting is a Roman Catholic church in England and the late, great Sir Alec Guinness has just knelt to receive Holy Communion and is quietly returning to his pew. Then someone would do the unthinkable.

To be blunt: Is this the time and place to talk to Guinness about “Star Wars”? The answer is: “No.” As Joseph Pearce, author of "Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief,” once told me:

"All that we really know about Sir Alec Guinness — right down the line — is that he did not consider his life to be public property. ... He was particularly irritated when people would, literally, come up to him after Mass and try to talk to him about his movies."

Ah, but what if it is Easter and all of America is talking about the release of the most important government document in the history of the Republic? What if the person coming out of church is the Special Counsel who millions (OK, it seems that way) of Beltway Talking Heads had designated as the hero who would slay (it’s a metaphor) the evil Donald Trump and allow Blue Zip Code Americans to return to living happy, fulfilled lives free of Twitter insults, other than their own?

This brings us to this weekend’s think piece, which I feel very guilty about because I should have used this earlier. But better late than never. This ran as an “ethics” commentary by Al Tompkins at Poynter.org, with this headline: “Offensive or appropriate? We talked to the reporter who questioned Mueller on Easter.” Here’s the overture:

MSNBC freelance reporter Mike Viqueira was trying to land the interview that nobody else has in close to two years. That’s why he confronted Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he and his wife left a Washington, D.C., church service on Easter Sunday. Viqueira is taking heat on social media for confronting Mueller after church, but some journalists say Mueller is such a high-profile public figure that he is fair game.

There’s a word for this: optics. It just looks bad for a TV reporter to confront somebody coming out of Easter Sunday church and peppering him with questions. It affirms the stereotype that journalists are just out for a scoop at any cost.

After a string of “No comment” replies from Mueller:

Viqueira said he wished Mueller and his wife a happy Easter, and he said Ann Mueller responded by returning the wish.

Viqueira said on the air, “Some people would characterize this as an ambush interview of a man coming out of Easter services at church and some passers-by were not happy that we were doing that.”

Tompkins noted that when MSNBC first aired the video Sunday, the network called “Breaking News.”

MSNBC anchor Ava Joy congratulated Mike: “Great questions, very good questions, because that is exactly what the American people want to know.”

Tompkins said he could imagine circumstances in which this approach might have been justified. What if this had been a print journalist with an unobtrusive notepad and pen, as opposed to a camera crew? Would that have made this ritual acceptable?

There were other ways to have handled this. You’ll want to see the options Tompkins offered. He also has a handy list of ethical questions that Poynter.org recommends, in situations like this and others.

But here is the bottom line, in this case. Saith Tompkins:

My take on this is that MSNBC did not have a justifiable reason to stake out and confront Mueller as he left church. Mueller has not avoided responsibility. Mueller is doing exactly what he should have done. He has conducted a grand jury investigation, which is by statute, secret. He issued a 400-page report on his findings and didn’t try the case in the media. He has not spoken with Congress yet, but may do that soon. If, in the future, he refuses to testify before Congress, if he avoids any further clarification about why he ruled as he did in his investigation, then journalists have more justification to press for answers. …

Once MSNBC decided to confront Mueller, I think the network had an obligation to tell the public what transpired. But the way it reported the interaction should have been measured and minimal so as not to make it appear Mueller was avoiding questions he should be answering.

What was the breaking news here?

Tompkins’ one liner is a classic. Read it all.

Please respect our Commenting Policy