Michael Rovito is pursuing a doctorate in public health at Temple
I spent the Saturday before last attending the Temple University homecoming game with family members visiting from out of town. After the game was over, like many in the crowd, we headed to Tony Luke's on Oregon Avenue for sandwiches.
These were the mundane highlights of our family outing before we got to Tony Luke's to find an unexpected fellow customer: Sarah Palin. The would-be vice president was there to greet voters and get a bite to eat with her daughter.
No one was engaging the Alaska governor beyond small talk. Most of the people in the crowd appeared starstruck, including some Obama supporters we had spotted earlier.
I felt compelled to ask the governor about the U.S. incursions into Pakistan that had been in the news recently. My parents urged me not to, but I thought she might respond in this informal setting.
She did, and I soon found myself in a back-and-forth that was well-documented in news accounts over the next several days. Our exchange drew a lot of attention because Palin said the United States should pursue terrorists into Pakistan's territory - agreeing with Barack Obama and differing from her running mate, John McCain, who had roundly criticized the Democrat for that stance.
To make matters stranger, I awoke the next morning to an e-mail from a journalist named Michael Rovito. He explained that he is a reporter from Wasilla, Alaska, who has been covering Sarah Palin for the last few years. He alerted me that some of the reactions to the reports of my encounter with the governor suggested a case of mistaken identity.
The conspiracy theory went something like this: Michael Rovito of Wasilla, Alaska, tracked Sarah Palin to Philadelphia, donned a Temple T-shirt, and found an opportunity to ask Palin about her foreign-policy views over cheesesteaks. And Palin did not recognize the reporter in his Temple disguise.
Now that I was deep within the Twilight Zone, my reaction was to laugh and search the Internet. I soon discovered that McCain had been asked about the Tony Luke's incident the next morning on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. He retracted Palin's statement and assured the viewing public that Palin agreed with him, not Obama. The exchange also came up in an interview with CBS's Katie Couric, during which McCain and Palin dismissed my question as "gotcha journalism."
Since then, many reporters have asked why I engaged Palin at Tony Luke's, why I asked those questions, whether I thought Palin understood them, if the exchange was authentic, and whether I participated in "gotcha journalism."
Students have asked me about being a voice for voters who can't interact authentically with candidates. Friends have warned me about the backlash I might face as a Democrat who questioned a Republican. My professors, meanwhile, are concerned that "gotcha-journalist" accusations could harm my academic career.
I have made it clear in interviews that I am not a journalist, have no training in journalism, and have no plans to become a journalist. I did not aim to stump Sarah Palin, and she did not seem to take offense at my questions; actually, I thought she responded openly.
I questioned Palin because I am a voter with profound concerns about the ramifications of this election for the future of our country. I don't think that makes me an unusual voter, but rather a typical one. I genuinely wanted to know her thoughts on conducting the war on terror, because a lot of my friends and former students are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As I contemplate the communications swirling around me now, I am struck by the tyrannical connotations of being called a "gotcha journalist." I am concerned that this is a blow to the integrity of journalists and informed, taxpaying citizens, who have the right to demand accountability from their elected officials. Why should I, or the journalists who work to inform the public, be scorned for asking fundamental questions such as those I asked?