Call it a different kind of fake news.
The congressional campaign of Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams says a young woman falsely claiming to be a BuzzFeed reporter attended a July news conference and asked a question that might assist GOP attacks on him.
Shannon Havlicak Grondel acknowledges she is not a reporter but says she did not claim to be. She said a McAdams volunteer asked where her work may be used, and she said the BuzzFeed Community platform — where rules allow the public to submit fun items, if they are not political.
She adds, “A few people from the [GOP Rep. Mia] Love campaign knew that I would be there. I did not go at their urging but rather to get an answer to my question.”
“It’s semantics,” said Alyson Heyrend, McAdams’ spokeswoman. “She was at a press conference. She would need to be affiliated with a news organization to be there and ask questions legitimately.”
Heyrend adds, “She was asking about a topic that [Salt Lake County Republican Party Chairman] Scott Miller would later use in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission. That seems like more than a coincidence, and more than a coincidence she would do that and attend with the knowledge of the Love campaign.”
It is not uncommon for opposing campaigns to attend and even record each other’s events, but falsely claiming to be a reporter to ask a question would be considered unethical under journalistic canons. Grondel graduated this year as a broadcast journalism student at Brigham Young University and now attends its law school.
Her online résumé and Facebook page note that she previously was on the communications staff of the Utah House of Representatives; was an intern for the Fox News Channel in Washington; and was a TV reporter at KBYU.
The controversy, first reported by KUER, arises from a July 10 news conference at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, where McAdams launched a tour of the 4th Congressional District with his “Ben Bus,” an orange school bus he had used previously in his mayoral campaign. The Salt Lake Tribune did not attend the event.
In a recording provided by the McAdams campaign, Grondel is heard saying, “I had a lot of people reach out to me with this question. They noticed that this bus was purchased with the funds from your county mayor race, but it’s now being used for a congressional race, and a lot of people are worried because this is a violation of FEC policies.”
McAdams responded, “I know that you and other members of the media heard that from the Love campaign. … If the other campaign wants to be negative and launch attacks at every corner, that’s going to be up to them.”
He then said his congressional campaign is renting the bus from his mayoral campaign fund “for fair market value.” The campaign later said that is $200 a month beginning in June (which the Love campaign subsequently said seems cheap and is the maximum that would not need to be itemized on disclosure forms).
Heyrend said McAdams supporters figured “something wasn’t right” and that Grondel looked out of place. So she said a volunteer asked whom she worked for, and reported that she said BuzzFeed — and obtained her name and contact information.
In McAdams’ recording, he at one point asks who she is as reporters are entering his bus, and the word “BuzzFeed” is heard — but it is unclear who said it.
Grondel said in an email to The Tribune, “I never said to anyone that I was a BuzzFeed reporter … or anything of the like. I was asked where my article would end up and I told someone that I would be submitting it to the BuzzFeed Community."
BuzzFeed Community describes itself as a place for humorous posts or quizzes from its readers, and says, “If you are an organization, a brand, or an individual with a political, commercial, or self-promotional agenda, BuzzFeed’s Community platform is probably not the best place for you.”
Grondel said she earlier wrote a story about donations to McAdams for BuzzFeed Community “where it got quite a bit of traction before being taken down for being too political in nature. As I continued my research into the campaign, I found a topic I could do a follow-up story on” — whether McAdams was properly funding his bus.
She said she went to the news conference to ask that question — and was not doing it on behalf of the Love campaign, although she said “people from the Love campaign knew that I would be there.”
Grondel said she actually did not write or send such a story to BuzzFeed or any other organization, because she became too busy with other matters, including a grandmother’s funeral.
Dave Hansen, campaign manager for Love, said Grondel was neither a paid campaign worker nor a volunteer, and was not at the event at the behest of the Love campaign. He said Love’s spokeswoman, Sasha Clark, was there to watch it for Love.
But Hansen adds that the campaign knew Grondel was planning to attend. “I knew that someone was going besides Sasha.”
He said if Grondel did falsely lead others to believe she was a reporter, it was not something that the Love campaign asked her to do. He said he was told “she said she was a contributor to BuzzFeed. … That’s like I have a letter to the editor in The Tribune, and then I’m a contributor to The Tribune.”
Heyrend said it is hard to believe that Grondel did not have ties to Love or the GOP because Miller, the head of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, later publicized that he filed an FEC complaint against McAdams asserting that he was violating election laws by not funding or reporting the bus properly — the subject of Grondel’s question.
“I honestly had no intention of misleading the McAdams campaign,” Grondel said. “Had anyone there asked me any follow-up, I would have been sure to make clear that I was not claiming to be a reporter for BuzzFeed.”
About the bus and its funding, she said, “There had been rumors going around about it since the bus first showed up in his first parade this summer back in June, I believe. I had done research to confirm those rumors and attended to simply ask him about it.”