Rawl­ings-Blake bans a re­porter

WYPR em­ployee no longer wel­come at mayor’s weekly Board of Es­ti­mates brief­ing

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Luke Broad­wa­ter lbroad­wa­ter@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/ luke­broad­wa­ter

Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake has banned a lo­cal pub­lic ra­dio re­porter from at­tend­ing her weekly press brief­ings at City Hall — a move that drew re­bukes from his sta­tion and ad­vo­cates for press ac­cess.

Rawl­ings-Blake said WYPR re­porter P. Ken­neth Burns may at­tend her pub­lic news con­fer­ences around the city and pub­lic meet­ings at City Hall. But she said he is not wel­come at the brief­ings she holds after the city’s Board of Es­ti­mates meet­ings on Wednes­days.

Burns has cov­ered City Hall for more than three years as metro re­porter for the Bal­ti­more-based NPR mem­ber sta­tion. Rawl­ings-Blake took is­sue with ques­tions Burns asked at last week’s brief­ing.

Lynn Walsh, the na­tional pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety of Pro­fes­sional Jour­nal­ists, called Rawl­ings-Blake’s de­ci­sion “un­ac­cept­able.”

“Pub­lic of­fi­cials, elected of­fi­cials and govern­ment agen­cies do not get to choose who writes about them or cov­ers them,” Walsh said. “That is un­ac­cept­able and should never hap­pen. An of­fi­cial even con­sid­er­ing it should feel ashamed.”

WYPR news direc­tor Joel McCord at­tended Wednes­day’s press brief­ing in Burns’ place. He chal­lenged Rawl­ingsBlake’s de­ci­sion.

“I be­lieve in the free­dom of the press, and Mr. Burns is wel­come at any of my pub­lic press events,” Rawl­ings-Blake told him. “WYPR is wel­come to all of them. This is a very close-quar­ters press event, and Mr. Burns has con­sis­tently ex­hib­ited ver­bally and phys­i­cally threat­en­ing be­hav­ior, par­tic­u­larly to my staff.

“We can’t tol­er­ate that,” she con­tin­ued. “We have to do things to pro­tect our­selves. This is still open to the press. This is still open to WYPR.”

Rawl­ings-Blake de­clined to ex­plain how Burns had been threat­en­ing. Burns said the ac­cu­sa­tion was “ab­so­lutely base­less.”

Burns asked Rawl­ings-Blake last week whether the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment was a city or state agency — and whether she had to go to the Gen­eral Assem­bly to seek more con­trol of po­lice.

“I’m not 100 per­cent sure what you’re specif­i­cally re­fer­ring to,” Rawl­ings-Blake said. “I’m not go­ing to un­der­stand your ques­tion right now. I can fol­low up with you and get you an an­swer.”

When Burns tried to in­ter­ject, Rawl­ingsBlake said “You’re not go­ing to be able to ex­plain it. I prom­ise and com­mit to get you an an­swer to your ques­tion. I don’t have an an­swer for you.”

Burns tried to talk again. An­thony McCarthy, the mayor’s spokesman, said, “We’re go­ing to move on.”

McCord said McCarthy in­formed him after the ex­change that Burns would not be al­lowed to at­tend fu­ture brief­ings. McCord said he re­ceived a for­mal let­ter bear­ing the mayor’s seal Tues­day evening.

“Ac­cess to the Mayor’s Post Board of Es­ti­mates Press Con­fer­ence is granted at the Mayor’s dis­cre­tion,” the un­signed let­ter states. “Please take no­tice that ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately, the Mayor has de­clined to grant her dis­cre­tionary ac­cess to Ken­neth Burns of WYPR to at­tend these press con­fer­ences. Ac­cord­ingly, Mr. Burns will no longer be granted ac­cess to such news con­fer­ences in­def­i­nitely.” Burns called the de­ci­sion “un­fair.” “It’s trou­bling con­sid­er­ing the times we’re in,” he said. “We’re see­ing re­porters banned be­cause of the ques­tions they ask. I’ve been cov­er­ing this city for the last 31⁄ years, and there was never a prob­lem. It doesn’t look good when an elected of­fi­cial bans a re­porter be­cause of ques­tions that elected of­fi­cial does not like.”

Don­ald Trump, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for pres­i­dent, has banned sev­eral news or­ga­ni­za­tions from his cam­paign events this year.

In Mary­land in 2004, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or­dered state of­fi­cials to stop talk­ing to two Bal­ti­more Sun jour­nal­ists.

The Sun filed a law­suit, say­ing the order vi­o­lated the jour­nal­ists’ First Amend­ment rights. But a fed­eral court re­jected the claim, and a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals up­held the rul­ing.

Rawl­ings-Blake’s term ends in two months. After seven years as mayor, the Demo­crat is not seek­ing re-elec­tion. McCord said the ban is in­ap­pro­pri­ate. “I’m re­ally dis­mayed that it’s come to this, and at the same time an­gry that an elected of­fi­cial thinks she can pick and choose who cov­ers her,” McCord said.

Andy Bien­stock, WYPR’s vice pres­i­dent for pro­gram­ming, said the sta­tion has found no ev­i­dence to sup­port Rawl­ings-Blake’s claims against Burns. “We take al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct se­ri­ously, but have so far not found any cor­rob­o­ra­tion,” he said. “It seems that Kenny is guilty of in­sis­tently ask­ing the mayor ques­tions she did not want to an­swer — and that is pre­cisely what we ex­pect our re­porters to do.”

In 2013, com­mu­nity ac­tivist Kim True­heart — a vo­cal critic of Rawl­ings-Blake’s ad­min­is­tra­tion who some­times in­ter­rupted pub­lic meet­ings — was ar­rested as she tried to go into City Hall and jailed. Po­lice of­fi­cers told True­heart that she’d been banned from the build­ing for “dis­or­derly” be­hav­ior.

Ajudge lifted that ban, and True­heart has con­tin­ued to at­tend meet­ings at City Hall. Rawl­ings-Blake de­scribed that ban as a po­lice de­ci­sion.

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