Sucker punch

Tuesday - 6/22/2010, 11:23am EDT

Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge became a YouTube star last week after losing his temper at two political operatives trying to provoke him into making an embarrassing response. The two provocateurs succeeded.

Mr. Etheridge, who represents North Carolina's Second District, grew frustrated by the men's repeated unwillingness to state their identity and purpose. He grabbed the man with the microphone around the neck. The rest is political history.

Mr. Etheridge apologized after the video went viral, and he, no doubt, truly regrets his out-of-character and unseemly behavior.

Many were shocked and repulsed at Mr. Etheridge's anger. But I doubt they would have been no less mad if someone had pushed a microphone in their faces and lied about who they were and their intentions.

The reaction from Republicans was swift, predictably self-righteous and suspicious. The media's reporting on the story was hardly distinguished.

The press, for example, first reported the incident as if the two young men were, in fact, innocent student journalists working on a school project. They were not.

The video appeared quickly on a notorious, conservative blog, edited to hide the interviewer's face and slam Mr. Etheridge's behavior. Mr. Etheridge's Republican opponent reproached him and said she would not employ such ambush tactics. Then she began immediately to use the YouTube film to raise money.

The media pilloried the congressman in Page 1, lead-story details. Yet, the press did not identify the two youthful journalists who instigated the confrontation. The press still hasn't named them nor interviewed them.

Slowly, the public has learned more about them.

They were, in fact, Republican or conservative operatives. Carter Wrenn, a feared, Jesse Helms' strategist and now working for Mr. Etheridge's opponent, revealed, to his credit, that the Republican National Committee knows the young men. Mr. Wrenn denies the two were working for his candidate's campaign.

The press has more than a good, sensational story at stake in the episode. Responsible reporters, who identify themselves and who they work for on such interviews, are smeared by the antics of such media frauds. This is not something a hardworking reporter needs when the press ranks down with rattlesnakes and Black Widow spiders in public esteem.

The media cannot replay the story, but it can demand answers from those who benefited from it. Who are the two impersonators? Who do they work for? How much were they paid? Did Congressman Etheridge's opponent or any of her staff or state Republican party officials know about it in advance? Inquiring minds want to know.