On 3 June 2017, a correspondent for online news show “The Young Turks” accused Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) of initiating “unwarranted physical contact” against him following a brief interview.
Michael Tracey called the congresswoman “erratic, intemperate, and unprofessional” after the encounter in Los Angeles, which he initially said ended with her shoving him. Footage posted online shows Tracey approaching Waters and discussing a string of tweets from her in March regarding “this Russia issue.” The following exchange ensued:
Tracey: Do you think that’s a proportionate focus for Democrats? Should it be overwhelmingly on this Russia matter?
Waters: No, and this is it — we can walk and chew gum at the same time. And for people who say, “Don’t do this, you just should do that,” let me just say that I consider that protection of our democracy and understanding that Russia is not our friend and that they are undermining our democracy by hacking into our elections and trying to determine —as they have done — who should be president of the United States and that’s very important. At the same time, we fight very hard for health care. We’re trying to preserve the [Affordable Care Act] while they’re trying to undo it with “Trumpcare” that’s gonna throw 34 million people off of health care. And so we know how to do both, and we’re doing that.
Tracey: When you say, “Russia’s not our friend,” was [ex-President Barack] Obama mistaken to forge military cooperation with Russia in Syria and try to get a START treaty?
Waters: You and I have a different agenda, young man. I’m out to impeach this president. Get that straight. I’m out to impeach the president. I’m not going to be diverted by people who are Obama haters.
The video shows her walking away with her arm making contact against Tracey’s hand and microphone, stopping him from asking a question. Tracey initially laughs but then adds, “She pushed me aside but that’s OK.”
That day, Tracey tweeted that Waters shoved him, then “angrily stormed off”, though he stipulated that it was not a “violent shove”. He also posted a statement from his videographer, who said:
I could tell when she got frustrated because she turned to look at [Tracey]. That’s when I shifted. She was like, “I ain’t got time, get out my way.”
At that point, the camera operator, identified as Ty Bayliss, acts out the “shove”. Bayliss also said that Waters “ain’t shit.”
Tracey later released a statement:
I’ve interviewed many members of Congress and never once have any of them initiated unwarranted physical contact. Maxine Waters did just that today. The words “push” or “swat” would also be apt descriptors — anything that connotes “unwarranted physical contact.” I wasn’t meaningfully impeding her path: there was no reason for contact … The semantics are immaterial here, as it obviously doesn’t rise to the level of an assault or anything remotely criminal. It just shows Waters to be erratic, intemperate, and unprofessional.
Society of Professional Journalists president Lynn Walsh said that while the incident involving Waters and Tracey was not “on the same level” as the attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana) the day before Gianforte was elected, incidents like it contribute to a hostile climate for reporters:
To me, that really did look like it was a swat. That said, though, what if five more lawmakers just swat reporters away like that? The more people do it, the more it becomes accepted. When we look at the fact that we do live in a country where we do have fredom of the press, that to me — being able to swat reporters away — is not a free press.
Tracey approaching Waters at an event away from her office was not unusual, Walsh said, because reporters more frequently have to do so in order to get in contact with lawmakers.
We contacted Waters’ office seeking comment. She has yet to respond, but she told MSNBC in an interview the day after the encounter that Tracey’s allegation was untrue:
The right wing have all of these people harassing me, following me around, trying to intimidate me. I’m surrounded oftentimes or I’m met on several times at an event like by different ones of them. They want me to go away. But Joy [Reid], I’m not going anywhere. They can’t intimidate me. I’m not afraid of them. And certainly, this 125-pound woman is not around pushing these big men. So he just lied. If you look at the video, it shows you there no pushing. I walked away from him. They’re gonna continue harassing me but that’ OK, I’m accustomed to being harassed.
When asked via email on 5 June 2017 whether “The Young Turks”, which has championed progressive causes while criticizing both major political parties, would discuss the encounter on the air, Tracey responded:
TYT reporters and contributors are given a laudable degree of independence and autonomy, so I do not know if they’ll be discussing it and I wouldn’t presume anyone to necessarily share my views. Further, the allegation that I am “right-wing” is amusing and demonstrably false.
Tracey himself has come under criticism online. Some of his detractors have cited his February 2009 arrest at the College of New Jersey to question his reliability. Tracey was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after trying to approach right-wing pundit Ann Coulter and accused officers of using excessive force against him. But that allegation was later called into question after video of the arrest was released. He pleaded guilty that April to “violating a nuisance ordinance.”
We also contacted “The Young Turks” seeking official comment on the encounter, but have not yet received a response.