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He’s In Our Face

But we – and the public – just want the mayor at our ear.

by Jacqueline Marino

ast Friday was a momentous day for me as a journalist in this town.

I actually got Mayor Willie Herenton on the telephone.

Over the course of the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve tried to interview him at least a dozen times, on issues ranging from the bluffwalk to the Memphis Housing Authority.

If I’m lucky, his spokesperson Carey Hoffman will relay a quote to me, but most of the time it’s “no comment” or a comment that adds nothing of substance to my stories.

Yet, in our one and only telephone conversation, Herenton argued that “I have been the most accessible public official in this city.”

Accessible to whom? Not the media. In fact, Herenton has become increasingly tight-lipped and short-tempered. The mayor’s inaccessibility has become notorious among reporters in Memphis. So has his hostility toward the media.

Every local news organization has a favorite case in point. The Flyer published its own on the cover last year. Under a picture of the mayor standing at a microphone, index finger extended to the sky, the direct quote “Go to hell!” appears in bold letters. This was the mayor’s unapologetic response to the Flyer’s criticism of his involvement with a casino company that put him on its board and gave him stock options valued at $700,000.

There have been other examples of the mayor skirting his public responsibilities in such a manner. In March, while the city was considering selling Memphis Light, Gas and Water, Herenton forcibly moved away the hand of a WPTY reporter who stuck a microphone in his face, leaving her “visibly shaken,” according to former news director Jeff Alan.

At a press conference several days after January’s Ku Klux Klan rally, Herenton angrily cut off questions from reporters who were trying to find out how the constitutionally protected, well-policed event turned into a violent fray.

And just last week, at the beginning of a press conference about Yolanda McFadgon, the head of his security detail who is being investigated on drug charges, Herenton told reporters to turn the cameras off. When he finished speaking, he returned to his office without answering questions.

By themselves, these incidents don’t add up to much. But when you look at the pattern of avoided communication with his populace, the mayor’s chronic refusal to comment goes beyond a confessed disdain for the local media. It seems to reveal a disrespect toward the people who elected him.

By setting ground rules at press conferences, not personally commenting on issues, and refusing to answer questions about hot-button topics, the mayor attempts to control the media. In a democracy, politician-media relations should not work this way.

Politicians should not despise reporters who will not allow themselves to be used. When Herenton refuses to answer our questions, he is refusing the public its due, obstructing the governmental process, and contributing to political apathy.

“The media come after you so much it gets to the point where you can’t even work,” Herenton said. “My job is not to entertain you.”

In fact, he entertains us just fine. Storming off into his office with reporters yelling questions at him makes for great TV news. So does raising his voice and making “none-of-your business” comments.

“Entertaining” is not part of the mayor’s job, Herenton correctly states. However, the mayor does have a responsibility to keep the public informed. And, for Herenton, that seems much more difficult.

(Jacqueline Marino is a Flyer staff writer.)

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