Questions Need Answers 

This week, for the second time in a month, Mayor Willie Herenton held a press conference to critique the press.

While that may be interesting to people in the media and some of their viewers and readers, it has deflected attention from two more important issues: the city's financial condition and the mayor's political condition, both of which can be affected by any sudden adverse development on the mayor's legal front. And it was this prospect -- teased on local television, perhaps prematurely and incompletely -- that prompted the press conference on Tuesday.

Dewey Clark, a witness in the corruption trial of former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell, has said that he gave Herenton $9,000 -- in Herenton's office. A wiretapped audiotape on which Clark said such has been introduced into evidence at the Atlanta trial. The circumstances of this claim are unclear and will remain so until Clark and Herenton provide more testimony in the trial, which is expected to last several more weeks.

Statements made in federal court by government witnesses who are under oath should be taken seriously. Clark, who is from Memphis, and Campbell were good friends. Clark even lived in Campbell's basement for a while. Herenton and Campbell were good friends too. They took part in each other's ceremonial functions, traveled to Tunica together, and helped each other raise money.

The media and the public, understandably, have a big interest in this. When Herenton testifies, he can be cross-examined by the prosecution. Presumably, prosecutors will bring up the $9,000 payment. Herenton said he runs an honest shop, and he has promised to raise his right hand and put his other hand on a Bible and tell the truth when he testifies. He added that he will speak about Clark's testimony and Campbell's trial after it is over.

The media and the public and their elected council members have an obvious concern with challenges, made directly or indirectly, to the probity of this city's chief executive. Likewise, they have a legitimate interest in the city's financial condition and changing forecasts from the Division of Finance and Administration. Herenton hasn't yet explained in detail how he will cut costs and possibly raise revenues at City Hall to balance the budget.

His criticism of some media reports as incomplete, biased, and overblown is fair shooting. Reporters have learned this mayor gives as good as he gets. You bait him, badger him, or, as one reporter did, put a hand on him at your peril. By political standards, Herenton is direct and not especially devious. On the other hand, we suspect that the former Golden Gloves champion can be a hard man at close quarters, within or without the Marquis of Queensberry rules.

Whether a television station had a scoop or a mini-scoop, a bombshell or a blank -- and whether said station over-hyped it during the Super Bowl -- is for viewers to decide.

The two pressing questions are whether Herenton can fix the budget and whether he did anything illegal. Whether His Honor likes it or not, both these stories are going to receive a full-court press from the media.


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