A top Republican campaign operative supporting Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., posed as a reporter for a college newspaper during a press conference earlier this month in an attempt to embarrass Davis’ Democratic opponent.
Miranda Lintzenich, the editor-in-chief at The Alestle – SIU Edwardsville’s student newspaper, said she was concerned when she learned the Davis volunteer posed as a student journalist from the publication she manages, in order to attack Betsy Dirksen Londrigan during the press conference.
Nick Klitzing, who has deep roots in the Illinois Republic Party, used a fake name when he claimed to work at the publication during the press call with Londrigan, WCIA – a CBS affiliate in Champaign, Ill., reports.
“This is Jim Sherman from The Alestle, the newspaper at SIUE,” Klitzing says as he signs on to the call with Dirksen Londrigan. He later asks pointed questions about the candidate’s husband and his involvement with political action committees.
“What’s to stop a corporate lobbyist, a… a corporate pac, like your husband, a corporate lobbyist at McGuireWoods, from funneling money to the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), which you then benefit from?” Klitzing asks.
Dirksen Londrigan rejects the claims, in a portion of the phone call released by WCIA and says she is running for Congress – not her husband.
“It’s 2019 and I think it’s time for women to be judged on our own and not by our husband’s careers,” Dirksen Londrigan said.
Mark Maxwell, the WCIA reporter who broke the story, confronted Klitzing about the impersonation and said he confessed to doing the entire thing.
“I was willing to help. I’m just a volunteer,” Klitzing told Maxwell.
Klitzing told WCIA he did not act alone and that he was asked to make the call and interject with questions. He said it was his idea to offer up a fake name.
Klitzing also defended crashing Dirksen Londrigan’s press call, telling WCIA reporters “it happens all the time.”
When interviewed by the station, Matt Butcher, Davis’ campaign manager, denied knowing about the phone call.
“WCIA gave Butcher another 24 hours to explain how an unpaid volunteer living in Chicago could have possibly been aware of a closed press call happening downstate and how that volunteer might have known to parrot Congressman Davis’ talking points,” the station reports. “Yet, Butcher still declined comment.”
After multiple phone calls and emails, neither Davis, nor his press secretary, Ashley Phelps, responded to a request from GJR for commentary on the incident.
“Once more, Rodney Davis proves his calls for civility are empty with his campaign again caught engaging in desperate, underhanded tactics.” said Jacob Plotnick, Dirksen Longridan campaign manager. “It’s not surprising that the Davis campaign is resorting to dirty tricks.”
Klitzing served as a policy director for former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first campaign, deputy campaign manager for Rauner’s second campaign and executive director of the Illinois GOP during the years in between gubernatorial races.
Additionally, Klitzing held positions as the Assistant State’s Attorney in downstate St. Clair County and served as a law clerk under Justice Lloyd Karmeier of the Illinois Supreme Court.
He is now a “public affairs, communications and government relations professional,” according to his LinkedIn profile.
In a statement The Alestle’s Lintzenich says reporters at the publication are trained on how to speak with public officials “in a courteous and respectful manner.”
“When we approach those we are about to interview, we make sure to remain objective and ask questions that are truth-seeking, not agenda-setting,” Lintzenich said. “We at The Alestle pride ourselves on making sure the stories we are writing don’t fit our own personal politics, but simply tell the truth.”
Lintzenich said she doesn’t understand why Klitzing chose to pose as a journalist with the student publication but believes it has to do with a collegiate news organization having yearly turnover with students graduating.
“If someone in a political party feels they have the freedom to impersonate a student reporter, who draws the line next?” Lintzenich said. “Student media is just as important as the next larger publication and situations like these should be taken very seriously.”
Lintzenich said she learned about the incident when WCIA’s Maxwell called and started asking questions that led her to believe this was a personnel issue. She said she was “caught off guard.”
“The incident of the impersonator pretending to be an Alestle reporter was not mentioned until after the initial questioning,” according to The Alestle’s statement.
Chris Evans, the president of the College Media Association and the Assistant Director for Student Media University of Vermont Burlington, says he has not been aware of a case like this happening before.
“College newspapers work under the same rules as professional media and this is something that could happen to any newspaper – whether they’re student or professional,” Evans said.
Evans said this seems to be an isolated incident and has not seen a national trend of occurrences such as this one happening but believes instances of impersonation can affect the credibility of a news organization.
Tammy Merrett, faculty adviser at The Alestle, shared similar sentiments with Evans in that a situation such as this one which could negatively impact the credibility of the news organization.
Merrett said this was not the first time someone has impersonated to be a reporter from the publication and has no idea why The Alestle was targeted.
“We do not condone or train our reporters to interview in the way the Davis operative did – which was not really interviewing at all. If someone on The Alestle staff were to do such a thing, they would be dismissed immediately,” Merrett said.
Merrett said the Dirksen Londrigan campaign also bears responsibility in which it did not vet the credentials of those participating in the call to the best of their abilities.
“This is on both campaigns and has nothing whatsoever to do with The Alestle,” Merrett said.
When interviewed by NPR Illinois’ Sam Dunklau, Dirksen Londrigran was asked if her campaign would revisit how it screens reporters for news conferences, she reportedly laughed and said it would be a “good idea.”
Dirksen Londrigan is again challenging Davis for the seat in Illinois’ 13th congressional district, which Davis won with less than one percent in 2018. The 13th district stretches from the St. Louis Metro-East through sprawling farmland and into the college towns of Champaign and Normal.
“Dirksen Londrigan, who prevailed in a crowded 2018 Democratic primary field, was a first-time candidate in 2018 and made health care a priority on the campaign trail,” the New York Times reports.
“She said her son became gravely ill after a tick bite but recovered because her family had good health care,” according to The Times. “She said she was motivated to run in part by the efforts of Republicans, including Mr. Davis, to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
This is not the first time Davis’ campaign has been in hot water. Levi Lovell, Davis’ field director, was caught on camera harassing attendees at a 2018 Dirksen Londrigan campaign event.
Lovell was arrested and charged with aggravated battery. He eventually pleaded guilty. Davis later denied sending Lovell to the campaign event.
:Editor’s Note: Brian Munoz is a former editor-in-chief of the Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Tammy Merrett serves on the board of advisers for the Gateway Journalism Review.