The Baltimore mayor’s office has barred a local public radio reporter from attending its weekly press conferences, with a letter sent to the station Tuesday revoking access.
Anthony McCarthy, director of public affairs for the mayor’s office, told Current that reporter P. Kenneth Burns has been “very aggressive and disrespectful” to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake throughout his three years covering City Hall. After consulting with city attorneys, the mayor’s staff decided that because the weekly conferences are in Rawlings-Blake’s office, she can exclude specific attendees. McCarthy’s career has straddled public relations and public media, including hosting talk radio programs on WEAA and WYPR.
WYPR News Director Joel McCord said the mayor told him Wednesday that Burns has “consistently exhibited verbally and physically threatening behavior,” particularly to her staff, and it can’t be tolerated. The mayor would not comment further when asked for specific examples, McCord said.
“I have not received any warning from her staff, verbal or written, that I was threatening to the mayor,” Burns told Current. The decision was “a shock,” Burns said.
McCord said city hall reporters have told him that they’ve never seen Burns behave in a threatening manner, although he can be “annoying” to the mayor. “He asked some questions that the mayor probably didn’t want to answer or couldn’t,” McCord said.
“We take allegations of misconduct seriously but have so far have not found any corroboration,” said Andy Bienstock, WYPR’s v.p. of programming, in a statement. “It seems that Kenny is guilty of insistently asking the Mayor questions she did not want to answer — and that is precisely what we expect our reporters to do.”
The mayor was visibly annoyed at an Oct. 5 press conference where Burns asked whether she had to go to the state capitol to request policy changes in the city’s police department. Rawlings-Blake said she wasn’t sure what Burns was referring to. When Burns tried to clarify, the mayor said she’d get him an answer later. Burns persisted until McCarthy said the mayor would move on to the next question.
“I do press her every now and then, and certainly this past Wednesday was nothing different from any of the other previous weekly news conferences,” Burns said. “So I’m amazed at … how this all came about.”
McCarthy said that afterwards, Burns drew more attention to himself by banging loudly on his computer, which Burns denies. McCarthy also said that the two spoke after the press conference.
“We had a conversation where he was admittedly very angry about what had gone down and had proceeded to curse me out,” McCarthy said, adding that he warned Burns about previous disrespectful behavior as well.
“Anthony and I did speak afterwards, but I didn’t cuss him out,” Burns said. “I don’t know why this is happening now. I’m just going to continue to do my job.“
McCord is not aware of another time when the mayor’s office barred a WYPR reporter. The station is unsure how it will respond. McCord said he would discuss the matter Thursday with station leadership. WYPR will assign another reporter to the weekly City Hall conferences in the meantime.
Lynn Walsh, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told the Baltimore Sun that “public officials, elected officials and government agencies do not get to choose who writes about them or covers them. That is unacceptable and should never happen. An official even considering it should feel ashamed.”
Rawlings-Blake is not seeking re-election, and her mayoral term ends in December. The ban will lift when she leaves office, McCarthy said.
Read the mayor’s letter: