Mayor's ban on WYPR reporter is outrageously anti-democratic

Zurawik: Mayor's ban on reporter is utterly anti-democratic.

The ban by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on WYPR radio reporter P. Kenneth Burns is outrageously anti-democratic. It shows either a lack of understanding or utter contempt on the part of Rawlings-Blake for the fundamental role of a free press in a democracy.

As I have regularly written here, I have less than zero respect for the mayor's handling of the media aspects of her job. And the media piece of the package is hugely important in governing.

You might recall I predicted when the national press got here and turned its spotlight on our mayor in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, she’d melt. And she did.

But even I didn’t think she’d go where she went with Burns.

In the wake of some close but perfectly acceptable follow-up questioning from Burns at a press briefing last week, the mayor sent a notice to WYPR saying Burns could no longer attend briefings that take place after the Board of Estimates meetings. The station could send someone else, but not Burns.

Rawlings-Blake explained the ban saying, “This is a very close-quarters press event, and Mr. Burns has consistently exhibited verbally and physically threatening behavior, particularly to my staff.”

I hope the mayor has a lot of evidence to back that up, because that sort of charge has real potential to harm someone’s career. If you make allegations like that, you better be prepared to defend them in a slander suit.

I have known Burns for several years, occasionally covering stories with him, but more often talking with him about journalism at WYPR when I taped shows there. Burns is a serious journalist, and I've never seen the kind of behavior the mayor's alleging.

And lest anyone think I am criticizing the mayor because of a 20-year relationship I had with the station, let me make this clear: I have no relationship with WYPR any more. I ended it a year ago, and have not been on the air there since.

And let me be clear about this as well: WYPR is not exactly a hard-charging, local news outfit. Like a lot of public radio stations, it mainly talks about the news and leaves the actual expensive and more challenging work of gathering it to others like The Baltimore Sun. Burns is one of the few reporters from WYPR who I have seen actually knocking on doors at City Hall and other government agencies trying to gather information first hand.

This is a matter of principle, and I hope every self-respecting journalist in Baltimore will push back hard against the mayor. Let her ban everyone from her meetings.

And that’s not some crazy suggestion.

In 2010 when President Obama’s administration declared war on Fox News, I was the media critic from the mainstream press who pushed back hard against the White House. I asked in print how someone who calls himself a Constitutional scholar could fail to understand that one of the core beliefs of the founders is that the executive branch must never be allowed to determine who can or cannot cover it. The press was intended to be as much a check and balance on George Washington as the legislative or judicial branches.

But Team Obama, which thought it had the right to cut Fox from the herd, only caved after all the major networks and cable channels pushed back and threatened not to cover any White House briefing from which Fox was banned. Let’s see how Rawlings-Blake handles it if she holds a briefing and no one comes – except the network and cable channel cameras to record the reaction to her petty ban on Burns.

Nothing is guaranteed if the press itself doesn’t push back.

In 2004, then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich banned state employes of the executive branch from talking to two Sun journalists. The ban was upheld by an appeals court, and the Sun had to find other ways to cover the Ehrlich administration. I’m not sure WYPR has the resources or the will to do that.

But maybe the mayor wants to think about her reputation and job prospects after she leaves office. She has appeared on CNN multiple times to provide analysis, and it would be logical to think she could want to pursue a career in cable news.

Banning reporters like Burns from press briefings is not exactly the best way to make that happen.

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