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Mayors and the Media

Thursday, September 6, 2001 at 2:48 PM

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Cleveland's mayoral candidates are on the prowl, looking for coverage and endorsements from local news outlets. It may be a bit early to say how well the candidates are doing, getting their message out, but it's already clear most of them are working on presenting themselves as approachable. Whoever inherits the front office at 601 Lakeside will inherit a press corps toughened by 12 years of Mike White. The new mayor's relations with these reporters will set the tone for the next four years. 90.3 WCPN's April Baer reports.

April Baer- Talking to the press just isn’t like it used to be for the city’s chief executive. The frigid relationship between the city’s daily newspaper and Mayor Michael White has become well-known; it was recently written up in the Washington Post and a publishers’ trade journal. Over the past few years, the mayor has refused to play ball with Plain Dealer reporters, barring them from important announcements and snubbing requests for personal interviews. PD editor Doug Clifton.

Doug Clifton- We have someone who has been on city hall for 2 years and has yet to get an interview with a mayor - it is unheard of, inconsistent from any experience I have ever had.

AB- Most recently, Mayor White’s press office sent out a fax refuting a Plain Dealer story, half a day in advance of publication. The fax was later corrected, redirecting criticism from the PD to certain members of city council.

Gary Clark says he doesn’t miss the atmosphere one bit. Clark is a former managing editor at the Plain Dealer, who’s now City Editor at the Columbus Dispatch. He says his current situation - sending reporters to talk to Columbus mayor Michael Coleman’s administration - has been a welcome change.

Gary Clark- Overall, not only has the access to records been good, but the relationship with the mayor himself, and his department heads - the access to these people has been good. It ought to be pointed out that it is early on in his tenure, and has just begun to propose programs that could be examined and looked at.

AB- Clark remembers that Mike White’s relationship with the Cleveland media has come a long way down. He recalls believes the flow of information from City Hall began to sour about the same time the PD started publishing stories critical of certain big projects the mayor had worked hard on - including Cleveland Browns stadium and the expansion of Hopkins International Airport.

Clark may be picking up on a larger trend. WCPN talked to newspaper editors in several cities similar in size to Cleveland. Some reported no particular problems with public officials; in Detroit and St. Louis, for example, reporters call or visit city department heads whenever they want, instead of scheduling days ahead of time, as is the norm in Cleveland. But in Pittsburgh, media started reporting access problems when Mayor Tom Murphy began campaigning aggressively for big-ticket public projects, like a football stadium and a new convention center.

Some reporters who cover the mayor say perhaps it’s understandable that a mayor in his twelve years in office may have fallen out of love with the media. Tom Beres is senior political correspondent at Cleveland’s WKYC-TV.

Tom Beres- I mean, certainly his attitude toward the Plain Dealer has changed, and to a greater or lesser extent, toward the media in general. When he was running twelve years ago, his mission was to get all the free media he could get. He was very accessible and very open. And obviously with the demands of the office, and some of the not-so-flattering stories that have appeared, some of them warranted, some of them, he feels not warranted, yeah, I think there has been more of a bunker mentality toward the media.

AB- Beres says, for his part, he doesn’t have major complaints about access at City Hall. He says he’s found it useful to study Mayor’s White’s psychology, and approach the mayor on his own terms.

Reporters are far from the only conduit through which the public gets information about City Hall. This year, the Citizens’ League of Greater Cleveland posted a survey on how willing municipalities are to give citizens information on a walk-in basis. Cleveland State professor Roger Govay, who coordinated the study, flipped through the results and said, compared with other cities, Cleveland scored above average.

Roger Govay- Here it is, 50% compliance with a helpfulness rating of 4. That’s really not bad at all.

AB- It may be the average citizen has a built-in filter that screens out the insider squabbles of mayors and media. We caught up with James McDougal, an East Side resident at a local lunch counter. He says he’s seen a few mayors in his 74 years, and Mike White’s his favorite. Still, he takes White’s complaints about the media with a grain of salt.

James McDougal- I think that’s a newspaper’s duty: to question all politicians, inform the people. A lot of them vote for people they don’t know anything about. The newspaper is to bring out what a politician’s philosophy is, what he stands for, whether they approve of him or disapprove of him.

AB- There is some evidence that elected officials across the country are becoming more guarded about public information. The Chicago Tribune is locked in a legal battle with Mayor Richard Daley Jr. over access to records. Philadelphia’s daily paper recently publishing a regular column devoted to what goes on at Mayor John Street’s closed door meetings.

If politicians have become tight-lipped, they may have done so in response to an increasingly hungry media market. Before he left his job last month, Brian Rothenberg, former spokesman for Mayor White, gave an example of the torrent of information requests he had to deal with.

Brian Rothenberg- We get 25-40 calls a day. We deal mostly with local media. Over half of the requests we get are not for the mayor, but for department heads or other staff. Right now I have 45 messages on my machine. I’m going to try to get to all of them before the day is over.

AB- Short of a major decline in the number of media outlets in Cleveland, there’s no sign the workload at the city hall press office will be much lighter as the next mayor takes office in January. In fact, reporters are likely to have more questions for the city’s new leader. April Baer, 90.3 WCPN News.

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