Let Kenneth Burns in the room

SRB needs to let Kenneth Burns back in the room

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 press 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 (and has been since the Civil War era), 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 and deserves 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 press 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, and that she wanted trespassing charges dropped. 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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