Thursday, December 1, 2011

Politician’s handling of press concerns Mast photographer

By Kevin Knodell, Photographer

The last thing I expected was to get a call from Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland while I was on my lunch break Nov. 18. It’s not typical to contact a reporter through his or her personal number. The night before, I covered an event hosted by the Pacific Lutheran University and Pierce County Young Democrats at which Strickland and City Councilman Ryan Mello spoke.

At the event, I made clear I was from the press. I showed up well in advance and talked with organizers about how the event was organized and asked where I could set up my photo equipment. I was treated mostly with cordiality for being willing to cover the event.

Zach Powers, a PLU alumnus and member of the Pierce County Young Dems, took my position in the press less than seriously and commented that it looked like I’d gotten my press pass “off of a milk carton.” I ignored the comment, set up my equipment and waited for the event to start.

PLU Young Democrats President junior Alex Wolfe said the event had been intended to be a larger event open to campus. Wolfe and other organizers had hoped political science professors might attend, bringing students with them so they could learn about what it was generally like to work in politics.

Ultimately, mostly only Young Dems were present. Mayor Strickland and Councilman Mello then arrived. As a result of low attendance that consisted mostly of members from the Democratic camp, the tone of the event was therefore more informal and personal.

Strickland and Mello sat down with students and talked about the upcoming 2012 campaign season, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, same-sex marriage, decriminalization of marijuana and race relations.

Though I had personal views of my own on many of the issues and positions discussed, I kept them to myself. I was put off by Mayor Strickland’s comment that was met with laughter about Republicans being unable to court black voters because “you just can’t get around that they’re racist,” considering that I was raised by Republicans, though I identify as an independent.

I was bothered because this sort of partisan rhetoric, which identifies those who disagree politically as malicious does little to benefit anybody. It turns legitimate debates about policy and what’s best for the community into a bitter and divisive battle between good and evil. It takes respect out of the picture and makes honest dialogue and reflection on one’s own beliefs that much more difficult.

Regardless of my thoughts, I kept quiet during the event. I did my job as a photojournalist, went home, wrote some basic captions, emailed my photos to my editor and called it a night.

The next day, when I answered a call from a number I didn’t recognize, which happened to be from Mayor Strickland, she told me she “forgot there was someone in the room taking notes” the night before. She wanted to know what kind of article I was writing and what sort of angle I might have.

She told me she said some statements that were potentially inflammatory and wanted me to understand that she just wanted to fire up the Young Dems for 2012. I told her that I was working that night simply as a photographer and that was it. After the call, I began to ponder this turn of events and opened up dialogue with editors on the staff of The Mooring Mast about the conversation.

I then learned Powers had emailed The Mooring Mast’s editor-in-chief at three in the morning to find my name and phone number.

It’s interesting that at some point between covering the event on the night of Nov. 17 and being called by the Mayor the following morning, I’d gone from being regarded as little more than a student journalist with a “milk carton” press pass to being a very real concern as a result of what I’d heard.

The Mast staff has not been able to determine how the mayor’s office got a hold of my personal cell-phone number. When Powers was asked by the editor-in-chief where he’d obtained my phone number, he only answered that he’d found it through “a mutual friend,” refusing to elaborate.

It is unprofessional to contact a reporter through his or her personal number, especially when it was not obtained from his or her editor, who in this case was not given adequate time to respond. It’s also hypocritical for Powers to demand information from the press, then to turn around and withhold information when we request it.

I don’t want to harp specifically on what was said by Strickland or Mello. Republicans aren’t any less civil in the words they have for Democrats. What’s more significant is that they were concerned about the press hearing it, so concerned that they needed to track down a journalist’s phone number. If an elected official doesn’t want to be heard saying something, why say it at all?

People, particularly those in positions of power, need to take responsibility for what they say and do. They need to mind their words and their actions – regardless of whether the press is watching.

Editori’s Note: Some comments made to this article have been hidden from public view due to their content.