Rawlings-Blake bans reporter from weekly news briefings

WYPR's news director is angry Rawlings-Blake "thinks she can pick and choose who covers her."

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 Rawlings-Blake'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, Rawlings-Blake 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 31/2 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. "I know Kenny's not the cuddliest reporter, but it's beyond my comprehension that an elected official thinks that she can do that."

Andy Bienstock, WYPR's vice president for programming, said the station has found no evidence to support Rawlings-Blake's claims against Burns.

"It is unfortunate that the mayor has chosen to limit access to our City Hall reporter, and pick and choose who gets to ask her questions," he said. "We take allegations of misconduct seriously, but have so far not found any corroboration. 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.

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

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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