The recording of Athens Mayor Steve Patterson’s lunch with county GOP leaders last week — a meeting the mayor requested — sounds more like an episode of “Fox and Friends” than a high-profile Democrat discussing local matters with the loyal opposition.
Patterson remained silent as Pete Couladis branded Ohio University students and faculty and liberal Athenians (including two of his sitting city council members) as “far liberals” and “communists” and compares them to Nazis. He calls two progressive candidates for city council “revolutionary socialists,” the GOP’s term for opponents who are not in thrall to moneyed elites, Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. He purported not to know the name of one of those candidates — Iris Virjee — and dismissed her, laughing, as “a bartender.”
Now the mayor appears to be taking another page from the GOP playbook: blaming the media for his misfortunes.
After Monday night’s city council meeting, A-News Associate Editor Cole Behrens approached Patterson to ask questions about issues unrelated to the recent audio leaks, including a reported assault of a woman on the Depot Street Stairs. Patterson told Cole that he had a new policy requiring all questions in writing so he can be “accurately quoted.” Yet the mayor would not — could not — tell Cole how he had been misquoted or misrepresented.
The move is clearly punitive: Asked if reporters from WOUB and The Post had been subject to the same restrictions, Patterson said that they “aren’t reporters” because they are students. Inaccuracy is merely an excuse. The mayor had been open and accessible … until our reporting ceased to benefit him.
It’s a play straight from the Trump-era GOP playbook, one we’re accustomed to. State Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville. Jay rarely responds to our calls, even on his own legislation and initiatives. (When asked to contribute a memory for our special 9/11 commemorative issue, he referred us to an old Facebook post.)
It’s also the new normal from Hocking College and Ohio University. Hocking College President Betty Young apparently disappears like the Cheshire Cat (minus the grin) when she learns that an A-News or Athens Messenger reporter is on the phone. She seems to be perpetually unavailable. All requests for information are funneled to the college’s public relations office.
The same can be true at OU. The most innocuous calls to university staff are frequently referred to Communications and Marketing, or the source says they have to check with UCM before providing information.
Now, some may say that public figures have no obligation to speak with the press, especially when the press has revealed something ugly; they’re accountable only to voters or to the boards that appoint them. Or that institutions have every right to tightly control communication with the press.
Here’s the problem with that view: The press is how voters and the public get the full picture of what their representatives and public leaders are doing. Like us or not, journalists are your representatives to policy- and decision makers. We ask them uncomfortable questions so you get all the facts, not just what’s on carefully curated PR and social media. And it works: communities with local news media have less public corruption, less divisiveness — and higher voter turnout in elections.
Press scrutiny comes with the job of elected office or leadership of a public institution. Demanding questions in advance, routing all interactions through public relations and outright refusal to speak to the media are all forms of prior restraint, the pre-censorship of information. When practiced in retaliation for unflattering reporting, it has a chilling effect on journalism: “Make me look good or no more quotes for you.”
The press does not exist to make public figures look good. As we say in the newsroom, “If you don’t want to look bad in the newspaper, don’t do stuff that makes you look bad.”
Accountability to the public starts with answering the press: picking up or returning calls and emails, providing information promptly, and refraining from slowdown tactics like “submit all questions in writing” and “you have to go through PR.” Refusing to interact with journalists and erecting barriers to prevent us from speaking with sources fetters a free press — a fundamental need for a vibrant democracy.