Shortly after the Baltimore Brew broke the story that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had banned WYPR reporter P. Kenneth Burns from the weekly press conferences she holds after the Board of Estimates meeting, I sent Anthony McCarthy, her Director of Public Affairs, a series of questions. Here they are, unedited:
- Is there City Hall video/audio of Burns being aggressive/unprofessional to the Mayor or staff (i.e.: from video the Mayor's Office may have had taken or security cameras)? If so, will it be released?
- I understand that only select outlets are invited to these meetings, is there any understanding between these outlets and the Mayor's Office as far as what behavior or questions are acceptable and what are not?
- Has the Mayor's office reached out to WYPR or Burns in the past regarding his behavior? If so, what was the response?
- Given that Burns is one of the few black reporters covering a predominately black city, has the Mayor's Office or WYPR spoken about/considered replacing Burns with another minority reporter? Did the mayor consider this when making her decision?
After sending him reminder email the next day, McCarthy got back to me with a two-sentence response:
"Thank you for your inquiry. The mayor's office will not be [sic] any further comments on this issue beyond what the mayor shared during the Post BOE Press Availability on Wednesday."
You don't get to make these kind of allegations against someone and then not back them up. You don't get to decide to not answer questions from the media, either. That's not how this works.
Burns' questions were about the kind of changes the mayor has the power to enact over the Baltimore City Police Department given the fact that it's a state agency. Burns was able to get his answer (or, in this case non-answer) from the mayor and still do good work. His story, by the way, is here.
Politicians rely on give and take from the press. It's possible that Rawlings-Blake thinks that she doesn't need to rely on that symbiotic relationship as much now that she's leaving office. However, there are clues that she is gunning for bigger things—she's secretary of the Democratic National Committee and played a big role during its conference in Philadelphia this summer (maybe you remember she forgot to gavel the start of the convention? It's been meme'ed).
The Baltimore Sun has covered this story aggressively, and today the editorial board told Rawlings-Blake she needs to let Burns back into the room, saying that she'd crossed a line. Earlier this week, the Sun’s TV critic David Zurawik ripped the mayor in his "Z on TV" column. He noted, rightly so, that if Rawlings-Blake planned to make these kind of accusations against Burns, accusations that could cost him employment in the future, she'd better be prepared to "defend them in a slander suit," he wrote.
It would be interesting if the city's reporters—like The Sun, WJZ, WBAL, ABC 2, and Fox 45—bit back (not me, unfortunately, since I never received my engraved invitation to these post-Board of Estimates meetings, whether working for City Paper or The Afro. Nobody else at City Paper has either, yet another sign of Rawlings-Blake's wariness of the media). Don't show up. Or maybe write only about Burns' police question.
One of the things that is frustrating about Baltimore is that this city lacks so much of what it should have. The city deserves a good mayor, this city deserves a good Housing Commissioner (why does Paul Graziano still have a job, by the way, Rawlings-Blake?), it deserves good journalism. By getting rid of a minority journalist in a space where there aren't many—I've covered events where I was the only one—Rawlings-Blake deprives a majority black city a voice that is already lacking. Diversity matters.
The mayor and Donald Trump exchanged some words back in July. He called her "a joke," and on Twitter, she dismissed him with a "girl bye." Given that Trump has banned members of the press as well, looks like there is finally something that the two of them can agree on.