In a slap to journalists everywhere, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently banished WYPR-FM City Hall reporter P. Kenneth Burns from weekly press conferences that follow Wednesday meetings of the Board of Estimates. Burns’s crime? He was doing his job.
As a lame duck, perhaps the mayor assumed that her effrontery to Burns would go unnoticed. Her conduct is emblematic of a lack of transparency that has existed throughout her tenure, which has caused citizens to distrust her and commentators to rebuke her, including this board: in December 2013, we criticized her administration’s repeated failure to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
This past week, Baltimore became a microcosm of a disturbing assault against the press nationwide. For a time, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump banned a dozen news organizations, including The Washington Post, from covering his events. As justification for her conduct, Rawlings-Blake claims Burns has been verbally and physically threatening to her and her staff. Aside from the mayor’s silence during the three-and-a-half years Burns has covered City Hall, these accusations are not supported by the videotape evidence of the questioning the mayor found offensive.
Just as body cameras will make it more difficult for some police officers to defend against claims of excessive force, the public can and will draw its own conclusions about the mayor’s most recent fiasco.
Although Burns was not visible on camera earlier this month, his voice can be heard and his questions and tone were professional. Moreover, Burns inquired about a matter that has been central to much debate – who has the authority to reform the Baltimore Police Department – to which the mayor did not appear to have an answer. When WYPR news director Joel McCord pressed the Mayor for examples of Burns’s threatening conduct, she responded, “[t]hat is all I’m going to say.”
As a former public defender, the mayor knows better. Clients do not hire attorneys to be sycophants to their opponents and newspapers do not hire reporters to kowtow to politicians. Our legal system is based on a search for the truth; our democracy is premised upon vigorous public debate. Lawyers are not fungible and neither are reporters. The mayor’s conduct has a chilling effect, and her invitation to WYPR to send a replacement reporter is an inadequate remedy.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake has provided literal meaning to the term “bully pulpit.” The bullying would cease if journalists acted in solidarity and boycotted such news conferences altogether.
Regrettably, that is unrealistic and in the face of such an alarming threat, we must speak out.
Editorial Advisory Board members Ericka King and Ferrier Stillman did not participate in this opinon.
EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS
James B. Astrachan, Chair
James K. Archibald
John Bainbridge Jr.
Wesley D. Blakeslee
Arthur F. Fergenson
C. William Michaels
Tracy L. Steedman
H. Mark Stichel
Ferrier R. Stillman
Anwar L. Young
The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.