from the picking-a-fight dept
We talk a lot around here about stories with people trying to determine what "real journalism" is. Those stories tend to veer towards the incredibly dumb, with most centering on a misunderstanding of what journalism actually means in the digital age. For a long time, journalism was an alchemy performed by a select few wizards, horded by a few outlets, which vetted and locked up their product. Today, of course, the barriers of entry to doing any kind of journalism are lower and the ability to distribute that kind of work is virtually unlimited. And, despite what you might hear from some grumpy folks who prefer the good ol' days, it turns out that smaller websites and independent citizens can journalism really well!
But not everybody has gotten that memo, apparently. Take Eric Papenfuse, Mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He has recently, and apparently surprisingly, decided to ban anyone working for website PennLive to the weekly meetings and briefings the rest of the press is allowed to attend.
We allowed Papenfuse to speak on his behalf. He said the ban was put in place because he does not believe PennLive is a credible news outlet, therefore it should not be held to the same standard.
“I think PennLive is the equivalent to Gawker (a self-proclaimed gossip blog), not the equivalent of the Washington Post,” Papenfuse said, “and it needs to be understood and treated as such.”
Now, I'm quite familiar with Gawker, having both read the site and our own coverage of their escapades recently. So when I went to PennLive.com to check the site out, I was expecting snark and gossip alongside some substance, which is exactly how I would describe Gawker. Instead I was greeted by headlines over a missing 11 year old girl from the area, Harrisburg crime reporting, and stories about a motorcycle accident. I can't say I'm sure that there is zero gossip on the site, but I can attest that I have yet to find even one sex-tape involving a professional wrestler. Honestly, the whole site seems like a basic local news site.
Observers appear to be equally confused.
Dave LaTorre, founder of LaTorre Communications, could not believe that a government official of a capital city could make such a public relations blunder.
“I call this breaking into jail,” LaTorre said. “You break into jail and you create a problem that wasn’t there.”
LaTorre said in full disclosure, he voted and donated to Papenfuse’s campaign. He was disappointed by Papenfuse’s decision Monday to limit access to PennLive reporters, no matter the reason.
“To pick a fight right now clearly will drown out a lot of the positive vibe that we felt here in the city,” he said.
Pressed for details, the good Mayor actually suggested that PennLive traffics in "hate speech." When bewildered questioners asked what in the world he was talking about, he said:
When asked if even hate speech should be considered hate speech, the mayor said not when it concerns an “anonymous post.” Papenfuse added that PennLive must better police its public comment sections to be considered a legitimate news source before he will release the ban.
If this ends up being all about the site allowing its community to comment, and comment anonymously, then this is completely insane. First, as LaTorre pointed out, the Mayor ran on a campaign of transparency. To begin banning sites that allow the public to comment from press briefings is the opposite of transparency. It breeds a culture within the press where, absent the rest of the press ganging up in retaliation, foists a permission-like atmosphere, where positive coverage is rewarded with more access. There's always some of that kind of thing that goes on, sure, but making it policy through banning unfavored publications? Come on.
Oh, and of course the Mayor's attempt to drive traffic away from PennLive didn't exactly go as planned.
LaTorre said that notion backfired as PennLive’s story on Papenfuse cutting off reporters has generated nearly 500 comments and thousands of page views.
“I’m looking at other comments. Twenty-six on one story,” LaTorre said. “Fifteen, 3, 5; this is Penn State story-type numbers.”
As a communications specialist, LaTorre advises Papenfuse to rescind his ban and apologize for the sake of the Office of Mayor and Harrisburg as a whole.
“Think about this decision. Reverse it,” he said, “and get back to governing.”
Papenfuse reportedly refused this advice. Banning the press for allowing comments and proclaiming a site as not being journalism? Oh, yeah, this should go well.