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The Kenney administration’s Trump-like new policy is bad for journalism — and Philly | Opinion

The City of Philadelphia’s new policy, which comes on the heels of a critical story about the city's DROP program, forbids city officials and staff from talking to Philadelphia magazine reporters without direct approval from the Mayor’s Chief of Staff.

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks during a press conference regarding the resignation of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross at Philadelphia City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.
Mayor Jim Kenney speaks during a press conference regarding the resignation of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross at Philadelphia City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Last week, Mayor Kenney’s chief of staff, Jim Engler, issued a statement to Philadelphia Magazine’s editor in chief, Tom McGrath. Engler said, “We don’t mind — and in fact we expect — stories that look critically at the city’s policies and actions. But we do expect fairness, and recent coverage has clearly demonstrated that Philadelphia Magazine is more interested in sensationalizing issues rather than reporting them fairly. In light of this realization, we have decided to adjust our procedure.”

The City of Philadelphia’s new policy forbids city officials and staff members from talking to Philadelphia Magazine reporters without direct approval from the mayor’s chief of staff. This policy emerged just after Ralph Cipriano wrote an exposé about the city’s controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan. According to the magazine’s report, when McGrath defended the story to Engler, who called to complain, McGrath says Engler told him it would have an impact on the way the administration dealt with Philly Mag going forward. In short: The new strategy is designed to be punitive.

On surface level, this new rule is meant to be a barricade to Philadelphia Magazine’s reporters, who will now be forced to get what they need from other sources. More than anything this signals to local readers that the current administration is more interested in promoting access journalism than supporting rigorous investigative reporting. This development, I must admit, doesn’t come as much of a surprise. I’ve spent the last year interviewing Philly-based reporters about their experiences dealing with city officials. The struggle is real — they can’t just trust the process, because the process frequently begets delays and denials.

Getting data, documents, and information about local policies and people, who implement and benefit from them, is rarely an easy feat for journalists working in Philadelphia. Facing a convoluted and frequently even adversarial system, many of them are turning to leakers and a constellation of off-the-record sources to learn how local agencies function and malfunction.

Why is this? For starters, Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law gives city officials considerable leeway in stalling reporters’ formal requests for documents. Rejection letters are frequently full of legalese — written in ways that prevent many local reporters, who lack a law degree and are often working in underfunded newsrooms, from appealing and getting the information they seek.

Waiting for local agencies to reveal their inner workings requires patience, and that patience doesn’t always lead to payoffs. As a taxpaying resident of Philadelphia and student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, I want a Philly that prizes open government; I’m invested in that vision; I know it’s possible. The investigative reporters I talked to are intent on not writing puff pieces about Philly city officials. They’re committed to getting the facts and figures straight. The city’s policy demonstrates that the mayor is not. It also signals Kenney’s mistrust with his very own officials, who could otherwise, on their own, choose not to respond to reporters’ queries or engage in direct counter-speech.

Singling out Philadelphia Magazine won’t silence its reporters; it also won’t stop city officials from leaking to them.

Transparency helps Philly newsrooms be forthright with their readers about how the city ticks and tocks. Government retaliation against critical, thorough, investigative reporting is a serious First Amendment issue, which has only become further exacerbated in the age of President Trump. Unfortunately, forbidding city officials and employees from speaking to the news media enables Kenney’s administration to speak with one voice — however questionable the practice might seem.

Philly readers have a voice of their own though, and they should use it. While the mayor has been critical of the Trump administration, it is disappointing to see him adopting the commander-in-chief’s retaliatory tactics against the press. Not long ago, the president instituted a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency, barring its employees from speaking freely with the media; that ban just encouraged newsrooms to shine a brighter light on federal policy. Free communication between city officials and journalists is integral to creating and maintaining an informed public. Mayor Kenney and his staff need to remember that fact. Obfuscation is never the right answer.

Muira McCammon is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and a law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her coauthored report, “The Right to Know or the Right to No: Public Records Laws and Investigative Journalism in Philadelphia,” was published last week by the University of Pennsylvania.