In the two years CityBeat was around during former Mayor Dick Murphy's tenure, we got a direct comment from him once, and that happened only after one of our reporters cornered him after a State of the City address. Murphy didn't much like the media and rarely spoke to reporters. In the end, even some of his staunchest supporters attributed his downfall partially to that reticence.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, on the other hand, courts the media, at least on the surface. According to a story in Sunday's Union-Tribune, the mayor's held 115 press conferences since Dec. 5-there was another one Tuesday and more scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week. Some of these are feel-good get-togethers; others are to keep San Diegans updated on Sanders' promise to restructure City Hall. But, as U-T reporter Craig Gustafson points out, all those media appearances belie behind-the-scenes policies governing how information gets out-to members of the press, to average citizens wanting to keep tabs on government and even members of the City Council.
Some of the details in Gustafson's story are kind of scary: high-ranking city bureaucrats are to file reports detailing conversations they've had with the press and with City Council members; the Mayor's Office is to approve all formal requests for public information, which has at times delayed that information's release; and one local publication, the San Diego Reader, has been denied access altogether. Gustafson reports that the Mayor's Office has preempted interviews with the media and threatened sanctions against disgruntled police officers who had planned to talk to a reporter about a freeze on pay raises. Gustafson himself has probably earned a place on the black list alongside the Reader.
Sanders says he's taking this position because he doesn't want to be blindsided by something he's read in the newspaper. Indeed, the mayor has repeatedly made it clear that the buck stops with him-he's responsible for anything that goes wrong at City Hall. And, he worries that information given to the press might reflect poorly on a city that's already in damage-control mode.
But is this justification enough for his media policies? We don't think so. Ideally, city department heads are smart, highly qualified people who can handle reporters. If they can't, maybe they shouldn't be in those positions.
We were itchy about the mayor's media policy even before Gustafson's story was published, and once we learned more of the details, we arrived somewhere really close to where City Councilmember Jim Madaffer ended up, as quoted by the U-T: “I don't know what they're afraid of in the Mayor's Office.” The whole thing smacks of irrational paranoia.
Gustafson's story quotes Sanders spokesperson George Biagi as saying the Mayor's Office is “suspicious” of the U-T because it boasts “watchdog reporting.” We might argue with that tag-the stories the U-T labels “watchdog report” are simply examples of good journalism that any daily should be turning out-but a lot of those stories have been honored with awards and have led to positive changes in the way the city does its business. So, the mayor is “suspicious” of the kind of journalism to which all reporters should strive? That's very interesting.
The sentiment behind Sanders' heavy-handed policy suggests something almost pathological. Judging from Gustafson's story, the control-freakishness in the Mayor's Office has some folks at City Hall living in fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Must be a delightful place to work.
Sanders' memo to department heads outlining the rules said vigorous debate should be held behind closed doors but that when the mayor makes a policy decision, it's final and it's the only opinion the press and the citizenry need to know about. We predict that this stance will stifle dissent, even behind the scenes. It's tough to encourage the free exchange of ideas while spreading fear.
Sanders is going to absurd lengths to control what the press tells the public, and that sort of effort is almost sure to backfire. He appears to be forgetting that the public foots the bill for government activities, and that's why we're entitled to know what's going on, notwithstanding state law allowing governments to keep some legal and personnel matters secret. He needs to lighten up, loosen his grip and trust the people he's hired to help him turn San Diego around.
San Diego's not a media-rich city compared with places like New York, Boston and Chicago that have more than one daily newspaper and lots of investigative reporters combing through the files and beating the bushes. But there are a handful of them here, and we hope they view the mayor's policy as a challenge to work even harder to bring to light whatever is going on behind the scenes at City Hall.