Mayor G.T. Bynum shares his thoughts on the media
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum remembers that Christmas breakfast well. He burned the eggs. He fears that's all anyone will remember about an otherwise fine breakfast — there was great bacon! And pastries! I think he's probably right. Burned eggs are a tall breakfast hurdle.
Last week, the mayor shared some stories when I asked him questions about dealing with the media. He used those eggs to make a good analogy and also discussed other topics — like being “terrified” in his first interview, dealing with bad news and a good philosophy he learned from a U.S. senator.
Bynum is nearly halfway through his first term as mayor, and here are his thoughts on the media:
P.J. Lassek was a Tulsa World City Hall reporter for years before moving to Maine in 2012. She had the respect of those she covered, and they all knew this equation well: P.J. plus
His first interview:
B.S. equals trouble. Especially for a city councilor.
“I remember my very first interview I did as a city councilor with P.J. and being completely terrified,” Bynum recalled. Turns out, he wasn't so worried about P.J. He was worried about the media in general.
“I had heard all the urban legends of how reporters try to trick you into saying things and then take it out of context,” Bynum said. “So I was terrified of everything I said in my interview with her. (She might) take one thing I said and misrepresent it.
“And what I quickly learned was — and maybe we're just unique here — almost across the board, the media here in Tulsa wants to get the story right.”
That's not to say everyone is perfect.
“There are a couple reporters in the decade that I've been at the city that I think elected officials felt like intentionally sensationalized things. And everybody knew who they were and just wouldn't do interviews with them.”
He wasn't naming names, but I know who it's not. He's on speaking terms with all our reporters. In fact, he offered this thought on the Tulsa World's coverage, which is led by Kevin Canfield: “I'm not just saying this because I'm talking to you. The Tulsa World really is kind of the tip of the spear (at City Hall).”
How do you cope with bad news, because it's inevitable?:
But it's not all bad news. We report a lot of good news, and you can find it at tulsaworld. com/goodnews.
“… It's easy to be mad that somebody is doing a story on something that doesn't reflect good news, but the reality is that you're not reporting something incorrectly,” Bynum said. “It's just, you'd love to have good news all the time.”
What's the biggest challenge of dealing with the media?:
“That's a good question,” he said, before pausing in thought.
“Not assuming there's an agenda, just to be totally honest,” he said with a laugh. “That's probably one of the more common gripes I'll hear from elected officials.
“Oh, well, reporter X, they emphasized this in their story, but they didn't emphasize that! And so clearly they are trying to slant things in a certain direction.”
Bynum said he “made that mistake” in his first six months as a counselor. He shared an encounter with the late Brian Barber, a respected City Hall reporter for the World. Bynum said he “chirped off” to Barber, who “quickly put me in my place.
“And that was when it occurred to me: Unless I feel like there is a factual error, I'm not going to gripe about stories. Editorial is totally different,” he said laughing as the World's Editorial Pages Editor Wayne Greene sat nearby. “On news stories, I'm not going to call up and whine if I don't like how the story went.”
The word agenda is used a lot these days, but — as I've written in this space before — our goal is not to make anyone look good or bad when we're covering the news. We want to provide balanced information so people can make up their own mind.
The mayor said he learned a good lesson from former U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, for whom Bynum worked. The lesson applies to the media and also applies to dealing with fellow leaders on public policy debates, Bynum said.
“You can argue with people about their position, but don't question their motives,” Bynum said. “When you get into their motives, then it becomes personal, and you're never going to win that debate anyway.”