Chattanooga Mayor Bars Staff From Helping Reporter

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By: Joe Strupp

The mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., has barred city workers from providing information to a local daily newspaper reporter, accusing the reporter of “making threatening and accusatory” phone calls.

“Times Free Press investigative reporter Michael Weber will no longer be allowed to call, gather information, or get quotes from city personnel,” the office of Mayor Ron Littlefield said in a press release issued Thursday. “After months of providing Mr. Weber with volumes and volumes of Open Records Act information, being extremely forthcoming, timely and helpful with all of his needs and requests, Mayor Littlefield thinks it is time to stop taking Mr. Weber’s threatening and accusatory phone calls.”

Littlefield himself added that “Mr. Weber has approached key staff in an abrasive and accusatory manner,” according to the release. “He is obviously on some personal mission and is chasing ghosts and goblins that don’t exist except in his own mind. His usual mode of operation is to call and leave some gloriously inaccurate message then claim he is on deadline and filing for publication unless he hears otherwise.”

The release did not elaborate on what specific actions the reporter had taken that prompted the ban. Littlefield and Weber did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

The ban comes more than a year after Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich ordered his staff and all state employees not to respond to requests from a reporter and a columnist at The Sun of Baltimore. The Sun even went to court to fight the ban, which remains in place after an appeals court in February refused to overturn it.

Since the ban was enacted, the columnist, Michael Olesker, has left the Sun following allegations of plagiarism, while statehouse reporter David Nitkin has been promoted to political editor.

Times Free Press Editor and Publisher Tom Griscom told E&P that he had spoken to Littlefield and Weber, but would not say what was discussed. “It is not an isolated event,” Griscom said, declining to elaborate. “I’ve got to know more about things.” He called the ban “a fairly dramatic step to take” and “draconian.”

Griscom said Weber, a two-year Times Free Press staffer, remained on the job and had not been subject to any disciplinary action. He added that Weber was not the paper’s regular City Hall beat reporter, but had been working on a special project about a local lobbyist. “If it had been a beat reporter, it would have been a clearly different response,” Griscom said about his actions. “A beat reporter coming in every day, you know there are going to be some issues that come up.”

Griscom said the mayor’s office had never contacted the paper with any complaints about Weber prior to the ban. “I am trying to reconstruct a series of events that have occurred over a period of time that led to this,” he added, noting that the mayor’s actions appeared to be related, in part, to Weber’s requests for public information, but said he did not know what specific requests had been made. “We are a very aggressive paper in terms of requesting documents. But I have to make sure I know all of the facts.”

In a memo to Times Free Press employees, obtained by E&P, Griscom said he had spoken to the mayor and reminded staffers to maintain a professional demeanor with outsiders. “We expect our employees to act in a professional manner at all times,” the memo said. “When requesting information, conducting an interview and writing a story, our reporters know the standards and practices of the Times Free Press.”

Some employees said staffers had taken such a neutral statement by Griscom as possibly agreeing with the mayor. Griscom denied such a notion, saying he had not made a decision either way. “People are entitled to their own opinion,” he told E&P. “I have to look at all of the facts before I speak for this newspaper.”

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