As a political commentator in the run-up to tomorrow’s election, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been on national television discussing national issues – from the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote effort (with Soledad O’Brien) to FBI director James Comey’s letter about Hillary Clinton’s emails (with George Stephanopolous).
O’Brien also questioned Rawlings-Blake on a hometown matter that has become awkward for the lameduck-mayor-turned-talking-head: her banning of a member of the media from her weekly City Hall press availability.
“You kind of got into it with a reporter who covers you and you’ve kicked him out of your press briefing,” O’Brien said at the end of a segment of her “Matter of Fact” show that was aired locally yesterday on WBAL-TV.
The mayor was interviewed in Boston last Thursday. According to her spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, she was there to speak to students and faculty at the Harvard Divinity School about “Spiritually Resilient Leadership.”
“I was curious as to why,” O’Brien said. “That’s a pretty unusual move.”
Rawlings-Blake agreed it was “unusual and unfortunate that it was done,” but defended her decision to banish WYPR’s City Hall reporter P. Kenneth Burns from her Wednesday news conferences. (Neither the mayor nor O’Brien mentioned Burns’ name on the air.)
“I don’t have a problem with any of the questions that the reporter asked me,” Rawlings-Blake said. “Any reporter in Baltimore knows that I’ve taken the questions that I want and the questions that I haven’t for years.”
Explaining her edict, Rawlings-Blake went on to repeat a claim that Burns has repeatedly denied publicly: that he acted in an abusive manner towards one of her staffers.
“What I won’t tolerate is abusive behavior to my staff,” she said, noting that she has also defended a member of the media in a parallel situation.
“When a reporter told me that a staff person of mine was abusive toward them, I handled it immediately. No questions asked,” Rawlings-Blake said. (She didn’t say what action was taken in that case.)
Mayor Stepping onto Bigger Stage
Burns’ fellow reporters in Baltimore have condemned the mayor’s action, as have the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Maryland-Delaware-DC (MDDC) Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
One columnist called it “outrageously anti-democratic.”
The dispute triggered criticism at a time when Rawlings-Blake, secretary of the Democratic National Committee, has been crafting a post City Hall persona as a party leader, talk show guest and Clinton surrogate. (The mayor announced in September 2015 that she would not seek reelection.)
Burns’ banishment, first disclosed by The Brew, followed an October 5 press briefing in which he asked the mayor whether the city would have to go to Annapolis to ask for policy changes in the Baltimore Police Department.
Rawlings-Blake told him she did not follow his question and “I’m not going to understand it right now.” She promised that her office would follow up with an answer, but Burns continued to press her.
Speaking with O’Brien, Rawlings-Blake maintained that it was not Burns’ questioning, but his behavior that got him dis-invited. She also repeated her contention that her action was not anti-media since Burns is not banned from her “open press conferences.”
“While some people are trying to paint this as a First Amendment issue,” Rawlings-Blake said, “he’s free to come to any of the open press conferences.”
She said the ban on Burns was necessary because of the setting where she conducts the weekly briefings – “in one of my conference rooms, an opportunity that I created so reporters could have more access to me to ask me anything that they wanted on a weekly basis.”
“Those are too close quarters for someone who has demonstrated abusive behavior,” Rawlings-Blake repeated.
Although Burns does not appear in the segment, O’Brien’s staff did contact him for comment.
A text crawl running onscreen said: “The reporter responded to ‘Matter of Fact,’ saying, ‘I was never abusive. I asked a question that she didn’t want to answer.’ “