Friday, January 28, 2005

Harper v. Herenton

Old news, actually, but still

Posted on Fri, Jan 28, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Last week the good folks at WPTY-TV chose to air some comments of mine concerning the recent run-in between Mayor Herenton and ABC-24 anchor Cameron Harper.

I have to say, as I did in a portion of my remarks which didn't make the cut, that Herenton is my favorite interview subject. In several longish conversations over the last 15 years or so, he has never lacked for candor.

Lookit, Harper is a classy guy, and I definitely have admiration for his gumption as a guest at the Rotary luncheon, in deciding to pick up the cudgels for his station, join up with a WPTY cameraman who was covering the affair solitaire, and turn into an on-the-spot interviewer. But -- how to put it? -- I don't think asking Herenton if his resignation would benefit the goal of consolidation is the kind of thing that a Freedom of Information suit could be built on.

Cameron certainly had a right to ask the question. We'd all have been pleased to hear the answer. But just as certainly, the mayor had a right, after a short spell of back-and-forth, to brush it aside. There's no law saying you have to answer something so clearly hypothetical. And to deny the implied challenge in the question would be disingenuous. Sometimes a question can be simultaneously pertinent and impertinent.

So it's six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-another on the first count. Continuing to press the question as other reporters attempted their own interviews, which is what a reporter for another station contends on his personal blog and which some of the raw videos of the occasion suggest may have happened, is something else again.

As for continuing to insist on an answer by putting his hand on the mayor's arm (which Harper denies and which the various videos are unclear on) well, what we know is that the mayor is heard to tell Harper, "Don't put your hands on me!" in an unmistakably imperative tone, followed by a softer, "Please don't touch me. No. Don't touch me. You're way off base." Which was followed, some time and distance later, by the macho line, "For him to put his hands on me, I'm going to drop him, okay?"

Meanwhile Harper is insisting to the mayoral press secretary and to a member of the mayor's security detail, "I can ask him any question I want to ask him. I can ask him anything I want. I will ask him what I want to ask him."

One is reminded of the scene in Henry IV: Part One in which the Welsh mystic Owen Glendower boasts, "I can call spirits from the very deep," and the cynical Harry Hotspur responds, "Aye, so can I, and so can any man, but will they come?"

In a later statement on the incident, the mayor contended that "an observed media employee made physical contact" with him and "had to be restrained and prevented from making further unwanted and offensive contact." He went on to assert that "under no circumstances" would "the office of the mayor accept the media's behavior in the future that is of a harassing or abusive nature."

In its own statement, the station disputed the mayor's version: "We believe Mayor Herenton is doing this to disguise his efforts to avoid answering pertinent questions from the public and the media. We also feel the mayor falsified and invented the 'contact' in order to avoid Mr. Harper and further questioning." Further: "Mr. Harper did not touch Mayor Herenton deliberately. If there was any contact at all, it was incidental and unintentional and was caused by the close proximity of the media to the mayor. We believe no rational person would interpret any facet of the incident as 'threatening.'"

For what it's worth, I am reminded of an occasion in 1997, when we at the Flyer were probing what we saw as a potential conflict of interest regarding Herenton's awarding of a lucrative consultancy. As a good soldier, I had done my part on that project. Shortly thereafter, both Herenton and I attended a Chamber of Commerce event. Chamber publicist Allan Hester asked us to pose for a snapshot for the chamber's newsletter. There we are in the archives, both beaming. But the mayor, a former Golden Gloves champion, is saying to me under his breath: "Back when I was a boxer, Jackson, I would shake hands with a fellow and then whip his butt."

I thought about that in the wake of the current imbroglio: If Harper had really wanted to advance the sum of human knowledge, he might have gone ahead and touched the mayor after being warned. Horrified or fascinated, we'd all have watched that movie.

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