Let Ken­neth Burns in the room

Our view: Mayor sets a dan­ger­ous prece­dent by ex­clud­ing WYPR re­porter

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake is al­lowed to dis­like re­porters who cover her. She can dis­agree with what they write or broad­cast. She can com­plain about the ques­tions they ask. But she crossed a line when she de­creed this week that one of them, WYPR-FM’s P. Ken­neth Burns, would no longer be al­lowed at her weekly news con­fer­ences af­ter Board of Es­ti­mates meet­ings. If of­fi­cials are al­lowed to choose what jour­nal­ists cover them, all public ac­count­abil­ity will be lost.

Even more dis­turb­ing, Mayor Rawl­ings-Blake jus­ti­fied her de­ci­sion by say­ing, “Mr. Burns has con­sis­tently ex­hib­ited ver­bally and phys­i­cally threat­en­ing be­hav­ior, par­tic­u­larly to my staff.” That is an ex­tremely se­ri­ous charge, but when Mr. Burns’ su­per­vi­sors at WYPR asked for spe­cific ex­am­ples, the Rawl­ings-Blake ad­min­is­tra­tion did not pro­vide them, nor had of­fi­cials made such com­plaints to the sta­tion pre­vi­ously dur­ing the 3 1/2 years Mr. Burns has been cov­er­ing City Hall.

The mayor’s move came af­ter a news . con­fer­ence in which Mr. Burns had pressed the mayor on whether the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment’s sta­tus as a state agency im­pacted her abil­ity to make the kinds of re­forms she be­lieves are nec­es­sary in the wake of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s re­port de­tail­ing an ex­ten­sive record of civil rights vi­o­la­tions by of­fi­cers. It was by no means an un­fair ques­tion, but Ms. Rawl­ings-Blake’s re­sponse was dis­mis­sive to the point of be­ing in­sult­ing.

She said she didn’t un­der­stand what he was re­fer­ring to, which is cu­ri­ous since that le­gal quirk has been in the news re­cently. City Coun­cil­man Bran­don Scott cited it as the rea­son why he needed to en­list the help of Bal­ti­more’s Gen­eral Assem­bly del­e­ga­tion to bring to fruition his idea of cre­at­ing a com­mu­nity re­la­tions coun­cil for the Po­lice Depart­ment. Be­cause the depart­ment is tech­ni­cally a state agency, it is gov­erned by state law, not lo­cal statutes. The Sun has run an op-ed and an ed­i­to­rial on the sub­ject, and Del. Curt An­der­son, the chair­man of the city’s An­napo­lis del­e­ga­tion, says chang­ing that law will be on his agenda in Jan­uary.

Mr. Burns asked again, at­tempt­ing to con­vey to the mayor what he was ask­ing about, and Ms. Rawl­ings-Blake brushed him off: “You’re not go­ing to be able to ex­plain it,” promis­ing to get him an an­swer later. Mr. Burns per­sisted, and the mayor’s spokesman cut him off, say­ing, “We’re go­ing to move on.”

Might the mayor have found this ex­change an­noy­ing? Per­haps, but there’s noth­ing about Mr. Burns’ be­hav­ior that was un­usual. Re­porters ask ques­tions. When they don’t get an­swers, they ask again. It’s their job. If they don’t, of­fi­cials get to skate by with­out ac­tu­ally telling the public what it needs to know.

Mr. Burns is not, in the words of his boss, WYPR news di­rec­tor Joel Mc­Cord, “cud­dly.” He is a dogged and ag­gres­sive re­porter. He’s hardly the only jour­nal­ist who at­tends the mayor’s news brief­ings who fits that de­scrip­tion, yet he is the one the mayor claims is con­sis­tently phys­i­cally threat­en­ing.

Ms. Rawl­ings-Blake’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has at­tempted to ban from City Hall some­one who al­legedly posed a “threat” be­fore, ac­tivist Kim True­heart. In that in­stance, Ms. True­heart was ac­tu­ally ar­rested and spent the night in jail when she tried to at­tend a Board of Es­ti­mates meet­ing. The mayor said at the time that the de­ci­sion to try to keep her out had come from the po­lice, not her. A judge later threw out the ban.

This time, the im­pe­tus came from the mayor her­self, not the po­lice. The al­legedly threat­en­ing Mr. Burns is still wel­come at any of the mayor’s public events, just not ones in a par­tic­u­lar room in the mayor’s of­fice that take place af­ter Board of Es­ti­mates meet­ings, and a may­oral spokesman has said the ban will ex­pire when Ms. Rawl­ings-Blake leaves of­fice in De­cem­ber. If he re­ally poses a threat, why would that be the case? The mayor has sug­gested that the con­fined na­ture of the room where these brief­ings are held height­ens the risk. Does she re­ally think a work­ing mem­ber of the press corps who has been at­tend­ing brief­ings for years will sud­denly at­tack her in a room full of peo­ple and cam­eras? If that’s re­ally the is­sue, why not move to a dif­fer­ent room or ask a mem­ber of her ex­ec­u­tive pro­tec­tion de­tail to ac­com­pany her?

What seems to be go­ing on here is that the mayor, with just weeks to go in of­fice, doesn’t feel like an­swer­ing Mr. Burns’ ques­tions any­more and doesn’t care about the po­lit­i­cal fallout from ban­ning him. She’s set­ting a ter­ri­ble prece­dent. She needs to let Mr. Burns back in that room.

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