Baltimore police stopped talking to Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton completely eight weeks ago after the paper published the name of a police officer who had been shot several hours before the cops made the announcement themselves. But the strained relationship between Fenton and the department goes back much further.
Since last fall, Fenton has written stories that embarrassed Commissioner Anthony Batts and his media spokespeople as the department took steps to control its public image. Last October, for instance, Fenton called out the department on Twitter when he noticed that it had not tweeted notice of some nonfatal shootings. In an Oct. 7 story, he quoted department spokesperson Jack Papp saying that "the department is not going to tweet out every time a drug dealer shoots another criminal in the leg for nonpayment, i.e. criminal-on-criminal crime that we know," he said. "We will still tweet out instances where nonfatal shootings involve citizens, public safety issues, etc. in real time, as well as homicides." The department quickly reversed the policy, and Papp's statement was criticized by public officials, including City Councilman Brandon Scott.
Relations between the department and the newspaper began to chill then, a source says, but took a turn for the worse when Batts himself used the term "everyday people" to contrast the city's 235 murder victims of 2013 with the kind of people who, for example, might read newspapers. He declined to sit down with Fenton for a year-end interview and suggested that the negative reaction to his characterization of the city's murder victims was the result of the "total emotional immaturity" of a "young reporter." Fenton tweeted that too.
By then, Fenton was not always getting word of police events and public appearances by Batts. He complained privately and publicly via Twitter.
The relationship worsened.
The story of the full Fenton freeze-out that began in mid-March is known generally by many Sun reporters, though none would talk on the record. Nevertheless, here's the broad outline from several sources:
Sgt. Keith Mcneill was off duty on March 14 when he saw a suspicious person at a commercial garage. Soon after, he was shot multiple times and rushed to a hospital in critical condition. Sun reporters learned his name and posted a blog about the incident.
And then things got complicated-or, even more complicated than they were before.
Soon after the blog about Sgt. Mcneill went up, word came from the Fraternal Order of Police that Mcneill's family wanted his name removed. It is unclear if the union was making the request on behalf of the family or of the Baltimore Police Public Information Office (PIO). Calls and emails to the PIO and the FOP were not returned.
In these early stages-hours after the shooting-The Sun held its ground. But Mcneill's name is capitalized in an unusual way, and when a reporter-again, this wasn't Fenton-asked the PIO whether the N was capitalized, back came an email from Lt. John Kowalczyk saying, in effect, that the Baltimore Police Department was not going to give the reporters any information until Mcneill's safety was ensured.
At that point, Sun management made the call.* The name came off The Sun's website. (Crime and courts editor Andy Rosen has not responded to City Paper's requests for a comment).
Within an hour or two, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts held a press conference, giving Mcneill's name to the city's media.
But although Mcneill's safety was presumably well enough ensured by then that the commissioner himself was comfortable releasing his name, police spokespeople did not renew regular communication with The Sun-and particularly with Fenton. There is video showing the PIO, Jeremy Silbert, pretend Fenton is not there as he conducts a routine press conference after a shooting on April 16.
In another video, Batts' security detail physically blocks Fenton at a press conference on April 17.
Shortly after Fenton tweeted these videos to his 15,000 followers, the police mood seemed to be thawing, a newsroom source says.
But they did not change their policy. And Sun management came down on Fenton, reportedly because his tweets-including one in which he called Batts' security officers "goons"-were deemed unbecoming.
Now, what used to be seen as a clear public policy issue has apparently devolved into a personnel and labor-relations issue.
Last week a notice went up in the Sun newsroom covering social media policy: "Social media challenges in the newsroom," said the headline. "The Guild is concerned that Sun journalists may face discipline for carrying out their job duties on social media in the absence of clear guidelines.
"Reporters who face push back and retaliation from government agencies or other sources that they cover should be confident that management will stand behind them. The Guild knows that a robust press, free of government interference, is essential to democracy and that the Sun is an important check on government power.
"If you are asked to meet with your supervisor regarding social media activity (or any actions)," the memo continues, "please ask for Guild representation."
Rosen sat down with police brass, newsroom sources say, and was told that the freeze would not be lifted until the police received a written apology. This was not forthcoming.
And so the standoff continues.
The Sun has faced freeze-outs before from public officials, most famously in 2004, when then-Governor (now Sun columnist) Robert Ehrlich directed all executive agencies not to answer inquiries from state house bureau chief David Nitkin (now a Howard County government official) and columnist (now-not columnist) Michael Olesker. That time, the newspaper fought back, publishing editorials and taking the administration to court (where, alas, it lost).
The paper's silence on the latest silent treatment stands in sharp contrast, but it's not out of character. Public officials nationwide have always frozen out reporters who displeased them, but lately the bans seem to last longer-or forever-because many government officials no longer believe they need good press relations. As James Rosen wrote last July in the Columbia Journalism Review after two separate congressmen had put him in the deep freeze, "Many elected representatives no longer view talking with independent reporters as part of their duty in American democracy, but rather as a privilege to be granted or withdrawn as reward or punishment for coverage deemed favorable or unfavorable."
Perhaps, to "elected officials," it is necessary to add "appointed officials." And maybe-we hope not-"newspaper editors."
UPDATE: Just after our print deadline Tuesday, both Sun spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik and Baltimore Police Spokesman Acting Captain J. Eric Kowalczyk got back to City Paper with statements. Mutchnick: The Baltimore Sun's coverage of the police department is unmatched. We, along with Justin Fenton, will continue to provide the comprehensive coverage our readers have come to expect.
And Kowalczyk: The relationships and interactions between reporters and members of the Baltimore Police Department contribute to the overall ability to keep the public rightfully informed about their Police Department. The Baltimore Police Department continues to have a strong relationship with all of the media outlets in Baltimore and we remain committed to ensuring that every media outlet has as much access as is possible without violating law or compromising investigations.
*An earlier version of this story said that Sun crime and courts editor Andy Rosen made the call to remove Mcneill's name from the paper's early blog coverage of his shooting. A source in the Sun newsroom informs us that Rosen did not make the call. Managers above him made the decision.