What motivates a politician to freeze out the press? In Harrisburg, the poverty-stricken capital of Pennsylvania, Mayor Eric Papenfuse has barred his spokeswoman from speaking with reporters for PennLive, the area’s largest news outlet, and banned PennLive reporters from attending his weekly media briefings. The mayor says he’s taking a stand against a news outlet that has become an “illegitimate … gossip blog” fishing for clicks and cash. PennLive, meanwhile, says aggressive reporting on Papenfuse’s business and civic dealings led to the clampdown.
We’ve seen the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, similarly banish news organizations he dislikes over the past year, most recently The Washington Post, which joins The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Politico, among others. Papenfuse, a Democrat who says PennLive caters to the right, is no Trump worshipper. But given the ease with which a man running for the country’s highest office blacklists journalists, it’s worth asking whether this could become the new normal in towns and cities across the country.
Papenfuse doesn’t view his decision to blacklist PennLive in that light. “I’m very much committed to the freedom of the press, but I also think there are responsibilities that the media have, but [that] have also been completely forgotten in the pursuit of collecting cash, which is what PennLive does,” Papenfuse says. “I see myself as ahead of the curve in standing up and pointing out this change in media.”
One thing that’s changed, he correctly adds, is how the local outlet’s reporters are evaluated. PennLive takes pageviews into account when conducting editorial staffers’ performance reviews, says Mike Feeley, content director of the website and its thrice-weekly print companion, The Patriot-News, which are owned by Advance Local. But he says the quality of journalists’ work, along with their commitment to enterprise reporting and video, carry more weight than the traffic their stories generate. Judging reporters by clicks is troubling, but that metric doesn’t necessarily prohibit strong journalism in the public interest. PennLive’s recent stories on unpaid overtime at Papenfuse’s bookstore and his ownership of properties near a bar he’s trying to close are fine examples of local accountability reporting.
The mayor says those stories didn’t inspire his ban on PennLive. He says that in addition to traffic targets for reporters, the site’s coverage is marred by a nasty, anonymous comment section, which the mayor suggests is also designed to drive traffic. Feeley doesn’t buy that. “Newspapers have a business model of telling good stories, protecting the First Amendment, and holding their politicians accountable to the public, and just because we’re doing it in an electronic format now doesn’t change our responsibility.”
Does the cause of this wall of silence matter? Not really. The fact remains that the leader of a major coverage area won’t talk to the paper of record. Papenfuse runs the city, not the publication. He’s free to criticize PennLive’s business practices, reporting, and journalists all he wants–and, yes, he’s also free to ignore them altogether. But this policy of silence deprives the public of the full story. And the mayor’s move will also surely send a message to other news outlets: Don’t get on Papenfuse’s bad side, or you could be next.
Social media has made it easy for politicos to write off pesky members of the press. Trump practically runs his campaign on Twitter, using his 9 million followers to amplify his punchy, bombastic messages. And his social media prowess ultimately translates to mainstream media coverage. Papenfuse, a regular tweeter and Facebook user, says he plans to escalate his efforts to reach citizens where they live, presumably using social media. Between both personal accounts and others linked to the city itself, he has a digital audience of nearly 14,000, minus any overlap. That equates to a decent chunk of Harrisburg’s nearly 50,000 residents. “I’m a big believer in direct communication,” Papenfuse adds.
Trump’s rise has foregrounded a population that has become skeptical of big institutions, including news organizations. Many of those people appear elated to cheer on a politician who sticks it to establishment media. Restricting press access rarely works in favor of politicians, says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and a longtime political reporter who now writes columns for the Louisville Courier-Journal. But this country harbors enough distrust of journalism to make you wonder if the stage isn’t already set for leaders to quickly become more openly dismissive of the press.
Since Trump launched his campaign, we’ve seen Tampa’s mayor block reporters from viewing his Twitter account. In April, a contender for Sacramento’s mayoral office barred a reporter for The Sacramento Bee from attending an election event. The month before, police in White Castle, Louisiana, handcuffed a TV journalist who was looking into questions about the mayor’s salary and charged him with a misdemeanor. That’s an extreme form of retribution for covering an important local story.
Cold-shoulder policies have likely existed as long as journalism, and their reach across Smalltown USA has been–and still is–unclear. “It’s the exception to the rule, but it happens enough,” says Cross.
Politicians are like anyone else, in that they admire and emulate the big dogs in their business. Papenfuse may not intend to mirror Trump, but that’s what his PennLive strategy accomplishes, regardless of his motivation. Time will tell if Trump’s brazen disrespect for journalists trickles down to others.