Caucus season in Iowa brings with it national media attention, some of it not entirely welcome. One Grinnell student recently found out what it's like to be at the center of a media frenzy.
Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff '10 attended a Hillary Clinton campaign event in Newton, Iowa, on Nov. 6. Gallo-Chasanoff tells her story this way: a senior campaign staffer approached her and inquired if she would like to ask Senator Clinton a question. Gallo-Chasanoff replied that she wanted Clinton to compare her energy plan with those of the other leading candidates. The staffer said saying he was unsure how familiar Clinton was with the other candidates' plans, and suggested instead that she should ask about global warming. He then produced a binder with a typed list of questions for the candidate -- the question on global warming was labeled "college student." He handed this one to Gallo-Chasanoff and told her to raise her hand when the candidate asked for questions. When she did, Clinton promptly called on her.
"Looking back, I wonder why I was so willing to ask their question instead of my own," she says. "I didn't fully realize the implications of their request until much later."
The incident was the subject of a story by Patrick Caldwell '09 in the S&B, and was posted on the newspaper's website Friday afternoon, Nov. 9. National bloggers picked up on the item within hours, and soon the national media was reporting on the incident. The resulting hurricane of media requests for interviews was more than Gallo-Chasanoff had bargained for.
"I never imagined the story would get so big," she says. "It was a very surreal week. I felt like there were so many eyes on me -- trying to process the whole situation and make sure I was acting ethically and with humility was hard." She consented to an interview with CNN (in part because David Schechter '77, a Grinnell alum and senior national editor at CNN, was involved in producing the story, Gallo-Chasanoff says) and with that put an end to her encounter with the media -- she hopes.
Once she thought about the situation, Gallo-Chasanoff felt she had to come forward so people would know the truth. "I felt like I should tell the whole story, just once, and then let voters decide for themselves whether that changes their opinion of Clinton and in what way."
She says she wanted to be sure her motives remained ethical. "I was afraid if I kept talking, I might start talking for the wrong reasons, but I felt like voters have the right to know what happened,"
Gallo-Chasanoff still believes it was right to come forward. Particularly in Iowa, she says, people believe they can have a genuine conversation with the candidates and get a genuine answer. She hopes her encounter will remind candidates that presidential politics here are not all scripted and pre-packaged -- real people are affected by what they say and do.
"It was a little disappointing to witness such practices in our political system," Gallo-Chasanoff says. "But in the aftermath of this experience, I got to talk with people all over the country through e-mail. Whether they agreed with my actions or not, they were (mostly) intelligent people who care about what happens in our country and who want to be responsible citizens, and that was inspiring. That's what politics really comes down to, having conversations and building relationships between people," she says.
Some people were critical of the story, stating that it's naïve not to realize all campaigns do this sort of thing. "It might be true that all campaigns engage in equally sketchy politics, but I think it's still important to call them on it when we can, if only to remind them that they are accountable for their actions and that their job is to serve the American people," Gallo-Chasanoff says.
"In the end it was a very interesting experience, and I'm really grateful to all Grinnell staff, students, and alumni who have supported me throughout," she adds.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Winter 2007