Oxon Hill, Md.
Unlike the young conservatives milling around the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with cameras waiting for their favorite politician or pundit to turn the corner so they can get a “selfie,” Jan Helfeld is here with a camera for a different reason—a serious interview. Politicians and pundits are usually eager for free publicity, so Helfeld often scores big names, despite having no mainstream-media affiliation or even many Twitter followers. But many of them have found that sitting down for a conversation with him can come with costs.
Helfeld’s video interviews on YouTube are essentially five-minute Socratic rodeos, in that they almost always end spectacularly with someone being tossed. Whether Helfeld is the bull or rider is a matter of perspective, I suppose.
His interviews have been seen millions of times, thanks to YouTube and the hyper-viral nature of niche political websites. He lacks the self-promotion gene that most CPAC attendees have—along with almost everyone else in Washington. But almost despite himself, Helfeld has a following.
Jan Helfeld interviews journalists, economists, and pundits, but he’s most famous for a handful of viral interviews with politicians like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden (1) (2), and Barney Frank. Most of these interviews were done for his now-defunct cable access television show in Northern Virginia, The Bottom Line.
His videos have a cult following (especially with economic libertarians) because his interview subjects work themselves “into a pretzel,” as one video headline put it. Pelosi abruptly cut her interview short when Helfeld’s compare-and-contrast with her support for the minimum wage and strict enforcement of minimum wage penalties and her practice of not paying all interns became too much for her. She threatened to call the Capitol Police.
Congressman Pete Stark was so angry at the end of his interview, he told Helfeld on tape to “Get the f— out of here or I'll throw you out the window.”
A talk with Congressman Esteban Torres in 1995 resulted in perhaps some of the most bizarre behavior exhibited in a Helfeld interview. A staffer, Roderic Young, took action when Helfeld’s questions began to frustrate his boss. The L.A. Times reported the incident this way at the time:
Young snatched the videotape from the camera and threw a microphone at Helfeld.
Young tried—but failed—to take back a release form that Torres had signed consenting to the interview.
After Helfeld was asked to leave, Young called Capitol Police to report that Helfeld had stolen a document—the release form.
After Torres repeated the stolen document charge, Helfeld was arrested, frisked, handcuffed and escorted to a police van. His bag containing the release form was taken.
Helfeld wasn't charged with anything. He claims the Capitol Police told him he wasn't technically arrested, and he got back his bag and the release form. He sued and won $45,000 and got an apology from Torres in a settlement.