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Covering the storm of Stormy Daniels

Megan Guza
| Wednesday, May 2, 2018, 7:42 a.m.
Stormy Daniels arrives at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008, in Los Angeles.
Chris Pizzello/AP
Stormy Daniels arrives at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008, in Los Angeles.

Kristen Jordan Shamus had never been to a strip club before.

She made her first trip April 18 to cover the nation's largest political story for the Detroit Free Press – a story that, if true, has the potential to bring down a presidency.

Porn star Stormy Daniels was stripping at Truth Detroit in the city's infamous Eight Mile section.

"It's surreal, but this is why I love this job," said Shamus, a writer and columnist for the Free Press.

Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, will perform Wednesday and Thursday night at Pittsburgh's Blush Gentleman's Club and Sports Bar.

Her performance comes one day after she filed a defamation lawsuit against President Donald Trump, with whom she has alleged having an affair in 2006. She has also alleged that Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, paid her $130,000 to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Read Shamus' take on covering the controversial Detroit show and how she turned a striptease into a commentary on politics:

Q: What was the discussion like in the newsroom when it came time to decide how to cover this?

A: One of my coworkers mentioned offhandedly in a meeting that Stormy Daniels had announced a national strip club tour. The legal tangles and allegations Daniels made about President Donald Trump and his attorney are big stories right now, but they demand careful consideration. We have to ask what is and what isn't appropriate to publish and determine what is and what isn't newsworthy. Further, asking an employee to go to a strip club for a work assignment could be very easily taken the wrong way. In this #MeToo era, there was understandable hesitancy. On the spot, I volunteered to cover it. It isn't every day that a porn star takes on the president of the United States. If she planned to make a stop in Detroit, I felt strongly that the Free Press ought to be there, even if it meant going to a strip club.

Q: Why did you volunteer, and why cover it as a column? What were your feelings, as a woman, heading into it?

A: I volunteered because I felt that no matter where you stand politically, you cannot argue that Stormy Daniels is not playing a big role in American politics right now. She's making history, even if it's eyebrow raising. We agreed that the best approach would be to write an opinion column about her visit to Detroit, rather than a straight news story. It was clear I wouldn't have much (if any) access to her. The club's managers told me she would not do media interviews. I didn't feel comfortable simply detailing her striptease. And I was struck by the spectacle that is American politics today. It is very much like a lewd circus act. I couldn't get over the notion that Daniels was performing on a national tour of strip clubs even as the FBI was raiding Michael Cohen's office looking for evidence about her alleged affair with Trump and other evidence. I wanted to capture that in the piece I wrote.

I'd never been to a strip club before, but I didn't feel put off by it or prudish about going. Strip clubs exist in America just as sports bars, restaurants and concert arenas do. For some women, working at a strip club is a means of survival. Still, there are plenty of legitimate concerns about how strip clubs can be dens for prostitution and human trafficking.

Q: What was the crowd like that night? What were their reactions to being approached by a journalist at a strip club?

A: I got there early with a photographer. We expected the place to be packed. Daniels was scheduled to perform three times that night – at 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight. We were surprised that by the time she took the stage for the first show a little after 9 p.m., plenty of tables were still open and the crowd was sparse. The club manager told me that the place usually fills up later in the night. He said there would be close to 500 people there by midnight. We didn't stay that long, though we did see more people coming in by the time we left about 10:30.

For the most part, the people we talked to were open to being interviewed and photographed. Some gladly gave their full names, ages and hometowns. Others were willing to provide a first name and last initial and some other identifying information. None seemed surprised journalists were there to cover it.

Q: In your column, you managed to not only describe a strip show in a way that was not salacious, but also turn it into a social commentary on the state of affairs in this country. Was that your goal going into the assignment?

A: Yes, absolutely. It was a discussion my editor and I had well before I stepped into the club that night.

Q: It's 2018, Donald Trump is president, and you're covering a strip club performance by a porn star who has the potential to bring down the presidency. How does that even feel?

A: It's surreal, but it's also why I love this job. Being a journalist is never boring, and we can never predict where we'll go or who we'll meet to cover the relevant news of the day.

Q: How about general reaction from readers? I imagine there were some trolls in the comments section and some who decided to share their thoughts with you via social media and email. How did you respond, if you did at all?

A: I got a whole lot of response, both positive and negative. People have very strong opinions about the president and Daniels and politics in general. Tons of folks were angry because they felt as if we were ignoring Bill Clinton's sexual liaisons with Monica Lewinsky and JFK's notorious flings. Others were upset by the vulgarity of their newspaper covering a woman's striptease. But really, our coverage was so much deeper than a report about a woman taking off her clothes for money. It was commentary on American politics. Yes, Clinton and Kennedy also had affairs, and it was scandalous then. We were outraged. But I'd argue that this is different because we've now grown numb to it all. The salacious has become the norm under President Trump, and many of us shrug it off when we see his latest Twitter rant or learn that a porn star is alleging that he tried to pay her off in the leadup to the election so she'd be quiet about a sexual tryst. That was what I was trying to show.

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