published Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Gerber: A letter to our readers in response to Mayor Berke’s open letter

Mayor Andy Berke is trying — and failing — to muzzle the largest news-gathering organization in the Chattanooga region.

He says the Chattanooga Times Free Press shouldn't have covered the city's unprecedented call-in, a face-to-face meeting among prosecutors, police, outreach workers and city leaders where gang members and violent felons were told to stop killing each other and straighten up.

He's saying we put lives in danger, but we definitely did not.

The meeting was clearly a news event. It was the launch of the mayor's most significant initiative since being elected, and could remake policing in the Scenic City. We have been covering the build-up through major news projects and daily stories for more than a year. To us, this meeting was a pivotal moment, and we would be sorry journalists not to send reporters to the scene.

How these men responded would determine a lot, and their response was a story that had to be told.

Berke's administration refused to tell media where the meeting was being held, but our reporters found out, showed up and waited to interview participants as they left the meeting before being kicked off the property by city officials and police.

In a story on Saturday, we printed the names of two men and their reaction to the city's new approach to crime. The men knew full well their names would be in the paper, and were willing to tell their side of the story. Others were willing to talk, too. The director of A Better Tomorrow, the grandmother of a murder victim, a pastor from Alton Park, a police officer, they were all excited to share what happened inside that meeting.

But the Berke administration didn't want anyone to talk. The news conference the next day was all reporters needed to know, police told the two Times Free Press staffers.

After our story ran, the Berke administration went on the attack, saying the paper was putting call-in participants at risk and that we had violated an agreement with the city not to cover the meeting.

The Berke administration's public meltdown was shocking for two reasons. First, the Times Free Press never agreed not to cover the meeting. Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, had asked a Times Free Press reporter not to cover the call-in in exchange for increased access to other parts of the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative, but the reporter said she didn't make any such agreement on behalf of the newspaper.

Second, when one of our reporters attended a call-in in North Carolina last year, she was allowed to interview participants, and public officials were forthcoming and welcoming of the coverage.

Berke says he worried about the men's safety, but chose to send an emailed letter to the citizens of Chattanooga, then emailed two more announcements in two days to all the media outlets in town, along with a social media barrage.

By doing so, he drove even more people to the story on our website and brought even more attention to the names of the very men he says he wants to protect.

What we believe is that Mayor Berke cares less about these men and more about projecting a message of success. At his news conference the next day he had nothing but glowing things to say about the meeting, but our story shows that reactions were more complex.

Officials thought they had convinced all of the media outlets in town not to cover the call-in, but they hadn't, and they're angry that they can't control us or the story.

Our reporters were practicing basic journalism -- getting a story from as many angles as possible, not just one angle. That's Journalism 101.

The role of the press in American society is not to shovel out the opinion and spin of our government. No reputable paper would report only one side of this event.

The mayor acts like the men we interviewed are victims of the media. That is an incorrect and paternalistic attitude. These men are adults, many with serious criminal records, who possess the freedom to decide whether to speak to a reporter or share their names.

Unlike public officials who, in this case, compelled the men to speak with them based on the force of law and the threat of revoked probation, the Times Free Press and other media have neither the power nor the inclination to force sources to speak out against their will.

In fact, one of the men interviewed called a reporter the day the story was printed and wanted to make sure his name was in the paper.

And it's not like these men have low profiles. The mugshots of the two men we quoted have appeared on the Times Free Press "Right to Know" website 11 times since October 2011. Their crimes are part of the public record. They know when they don't want to talk -- and when they do.

Kelly McBride, who runs the Ethics Department at the Poynter Institute, a leading voice in journalism, said the newspaper "absolutely" should have covered this event and that it was not unethical to do so.

"This is called holding the powerful accountable," said McBride, who is co-author of "The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century."

She said officials asking the media to stay away raises questions.

"If this [the call-in] is meant to be done under the cover of darkness, I think that raises legitimacy questions about the program," she said. "I'd see this as a little red flag that you probably need to do more scrutiny, not less."

In Sunday's paper, a Times Free Press reporter wrote about a federal meeting with nine parolees, similar to a call-in. An assistant U.S. attorney warned the parolees about how they'll serve long sentences in federal prison if they re-offend and offered access to programs for GEDs, job placement and counseling -- the same things they said at Chattanooga's meeting.

A Times Free Press reporter and photographer were allowed into the federal meeting. They took photos and interviewed one of the parolees. So, by Berke's standard, the U.S. Attorney's office put those parolees' lives in danger.

The Times Free Press has a choice:

We can blindly report the message of our elected officials. Or we can independently verify facts, report the news and hold our government officials accountable.

I'm sorry, Mr. Mayor, but that's an easy choice.

Thomas Jefferson would agree.

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter," he wrote in 1787.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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