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Accidental phone call sparks criticism of KTVA's coverage of Miller

From Lisa Demer in Anchorage --

A garbled conversation captured by chance on the voice mail of a staff member for U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller is being played up by the campaign as evidence of a local television station’s attempt to create anti-Miller stories, but the station says that’s absurd.

The brouhaha over the errant message, which included a reference to the possibility of child molesters appearing at a Miller rally, was getting national attention Sunday. Sarah Palin said on Fox News that “the CBS reporters, the affiliate in Alaska, conspired to make up stories about Joe Miller. We have the tape.”

The Miller campaign and KTVA Channel 11 agree on the basic narrative of what happened, but disagree strongly on what it means.

Someone with KTVA Channel 11 called Miller campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto Thursday afternoon to discuss the GOP candidate appearing on that evening’s newscast.

After getting DeSoto’s voice mail, the KTVA staffer failed to hang up the phone. DeSoto’s voice mail then captured the subsequent conversation among news staffers about story possibilities arising from the pro-Miller rally later that evening. Palin was the featured speaker at the rally.

On Saturday night, the Miller campaign released an audio copy of the recorded message, which is choppy and hard to follow, along with a transcript. DeSoto said Sunday the audio was not edited by the campaign. He said he believes it was KTVA assignment manager Nick McDermott calling because they had spoken before and McDermott’s number was captured along with the conversation. In addition, DeSoto said that McDermott later texted him “Damn iPhone . . . I left you a long message. I thought I hung up. Sorry.”

In a press release, the Miller campaign says the journalists “openly discuss creating, if not fabricating, two stories about Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, Joe Miller.” The campaign contends one was about finding a child molester among Miller’s supporters.

The other, according to the campaign’s interpretation of the overheard conversation, was about creating a “Rand Paul incident” at the Miller rally and “hoping for violence so that they can ‘send out a tweet’ and ‘Facebook that ‘Miller got punched.’”

Paul is the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Kentucky. Like Miller, he is a tea party favorite. Outside a debate between Paul and his Democratic rival last week, a woman with the liberal group was wrestled to the ground and stomped by an angry man. The scene was captured on video and circulated on the Web.

No one is suggesting that there actually was any kind of violence at the pro-Miller rally at the Dena'ina Center, where Palin was the headline speaker. KTVA didn't do any stories about sex offenders connected with the campaign.

KTVA general manager Jerry Bever said in a written statement that “the Miller campaign’s analysis of the recording is incorrect in many material ways ranging from personnel involved in the conversation, the interpretation of conversation snippets and the reported transcript of the perceived garbled conversation.”

Here's the recording as posted to YouTube by the Miller campaign:

Here’s the conversation among the KTVA news team, according to the transcript distributed by the campaign:

FEMALE REPORTER: That’s up to you because you're the expert, but that’s what I would do. ... I’d wait until you see who showed up because that indicates we already know something.


FEMALE REPORTER: Child molesters...

MALE REPORTER: Oh yeah. … Can you repeat Joe Miller’s, uh, list of people, campaign workers, which one's the molester?


FEMALE VOICE: We know that out of all the people that will show up tonight, at least one of them will be a registered sex offender.


MALE REPORTER: You have to find that one person.


FEMALE REPORTER: And the one thing we can do is, we won’t know, we won’t know but if there is any sort of chaos whatsoever we can put out a twitter/facebook alert: saying what the... ‘Hey Joe Miller punched at rally.’

FEMALE REPORTER: Kinda like Rand Paul. I like that. That’s a good one.

Neither Miller nor DeSoto explained what exactly they considered to be evidence of story fabrication.

"The transcript and the audio speak for themselves," Miller said Sunday. "I'm not going to tell you anything more than that. The people that listen to it and read the transcript can make up their own minds."

Bever, the station manager, said the news crew never discussed making up stories.

“While this recording is real, the allegations are untrue,” Bever said in the statement. “… That phone call was placed near the end of a coverage planning meeting in our newsroom regarding that evening’s Miller rally in downtown Anchorage. The group of KTVA news personnel was reviewing potential ‘what-if’ scenarios, discussing the likelihood of events at the rally and how KTVA might logistically disseminate any breaking news.”

Bever did not return calls or respond to e-mails to answers questions beyond the written statement.

“The perception that this garbled, out of context recording may leave is unfortunate, but to allege that our staff was discussing or planning to create or fabricate stories regarding candidate Miller is absurd. The complete conversation was about what others might be able to do to cause disruption within the Miller campaign, not what KTVA could do.”

The statement said he wouldn’t address whether any staff members were being disciplined.

“Have we had internal discussions about the level of professionalism we need to bring to our conversations, internally and externally? Of course we have, this is a lesson to learn from.”

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