The "Gotcha Journalist": An Exclusive Interview with Michael Rovito

A sausage and provolone sandwich is responsible for turning a 28 year-old graduate student from Pennsylvania's coal region into a "gotcha journalist" at the center of the most important election in our nation's history. On Saturday, September 27, Michael Rovito, a PhD candidate in Public Health at Temple University, encountered Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin in Tony Luke's in Philadelphia.

"How about the Pakistan situation?" he asked the Alaskan governor, in a moment captured on camera by the local CBS affiliate. "...Do we cross border, like from Afghanistan to Pakistan, you think?"

"If that's what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should," Palin responded, in direct contradiction to the position fervently advocated by her running mate John McCain in the previous night's debate, and directly in line with the position held by opponent Barack Obama.

On Monday morning, both McCain and Palin appeared jointly in an interview with Katie Couric, attributing Palin's gaffe to "gotcha journalism" on the part of Rovito. Now, Rovito responds to that characterization.

BAM: Why do you think John McCain feels that what is said to a "young gentleman, a voter," is less important than what is said to a member of the media?

MR: I do not have any insight as to whether or not John McCain views questions from voters as more or less important than those of members of the media. However, having been called a "gotcha journalist" gives me new insights into the importance of a free press. In addition, as an informed tax-paying voter, I do think that it is reasonable for me to direct questions to a politician at a public campaign event. And, I think it is reasonable to expect that questions asked of voters are answered by our elected officials and candidates for public office, particularly if the public office is President or Vice President of the United States.

I am a registered Democrat, pursuing my graduate education as a means of sharing in the American Dream that has been so illusive for myself and others who come from Pennsylvania's Coal Region. My mom and dad were with me when I questioned Sarah Palin, and part of the reason they did not want me to engage her was because of their own backgrounds as an auto-parts salesman and secretary.

Like a lot of students who come from my working class background, I worked and borrowed my way through college and graduate school and face a mountain of loans that will have to be repaid in the future. So, I find it insulting, not only to me, but also to the tenets of American democracy and the everyday Joe's and Jane's out there wanting to be heard and be part of the system that questioning a politician in a public forum is somehow deserving of a rebuke by the politician being questioned.

BAM: When you encountered Sarah Palin, were you really trying to "get" her? What were you hoping to learn?

MR: It was a total coincidence that I ran into Sarah Palin. I was at the homecoming game at Eagles Stadium (Go Birds!) with my family. After the game, we went to get a bite to eat at Tony Luke's (we think it has the best sausage and provolone sandwich in the country, by the way). We, along with the restaurant crowd that had gathered after the game, were stunned to see a motorcade pulling in front of the restaurant. Palin stepped out and began posing for photographs and signing autographs with voters.

One reason I thought about asking her a question was because I became increasingly surprised, as time went by, that no one spoke with her about the issues of this election season. I was equally surprised that she did not ask people about their concerns and troubles. I thought to myself that I would regret passing up the opportunity to at least ask a question about her views. I really did not have any idea if she would be willing to enter into a conversation or answer questions. But I was hoping to learn what she thought about why the U.S. is failing in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan in our War on Terror. I wanted to get some idea what the McCain-Palin administration would do to end this violence and address the threat of terrorism.

I wasn't trying to get her to agree or disagree with anything. My question was open-ended, hoping for either a descriptive answer or give-and-take about the issue. I would have asked the same question of Obama, Joe Biden, McCain, Bob Barr, Ralph Nader, any one of the candidates.

BAM: How do you feel the opinions of younger voters are perceived by both campaigns?

MR: The notion that young scholars, workers, and activists -- the next generation of tax-paying voters -- are sometimes seen as disaffected and alienated from politics is insulting. One of the big differences between the Obama and McCain campaigns is their acknowledgment of the importance of young voters. Obama's campaign has been strategic about involving the youth vote; McCain has seemed less open. I think it is a fundamental miscalculation on the part of the McCain campaign to assume that young voters are not strong stakeholders in this election.

Our future outlook has been severely compromised because of the policies of the past eight years. We are keenly aware of the financial burdens we will face as our democracy is rebuilt in the next administration. In the future, our labor will drive the American economy. We will pay the taxes. We have already been fighting the current wars. Most importantly, we vote.

BAM: How does McCain's attitude toward your question change your opinion of him?

MR: I felt that McCain and Palin's response to questions about "gotcha journalism" posed by Katie Couric earlier this week questioned the integrity of the field of journalism, and along with it the tenets of free speech in American democracy. I was labeled a "gotcha journalist" simply for asking a question of an elected official; and "gotcha journalism" was meant to be derogatory. The inherent power structure enables him to define me any way he wants, but almost impossible for me to respond.

I am glad that members of the press and bloggers have been interested in this story, but from my position within this story, it is easy to see why many voters were quiet at Tony Luke's last weekend. A lot of them are older than I am, and maybe wiser to the ways of the political world in the sense that they understand both sides to try and get my side of the story out and understood. However, it is a daunting battle to be fought. My opinion of Senator McCain has indeed gotten worse. I still respect him for his service to this country, but I do not respect him on his opinions of citizens holding him accountable.

BAM: Tina Fey's portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live has become something of a legend. Were "Saturday Night Live" to parody your questioning of Sarah Palin, who would play you?

MR: Andy Samberg, of course! He's great.