Fenty’s last, lost constituency: the local media

Adrian Fenty and the local media have never had the warmest of of relationships. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

Freeman Klopott has a lot of ground to cover as the Washington Examiner’s D.C. politics correspondent. On primary day alone, his charge was to tail both incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and his challenger, Vince Gray. The pursuit wasn’t equally taxing: Klopott had plenty of information on where Gray would be roaming, little on Fenty’s itinerary.

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“It’s kind of been hard to track him,” says Klopott, referring to the mayor.

Note that Klopott’s struggle for information comes weeks after Fenty pledged to become a new Fenty---more accessible and nicer. Though it's hard to challenge the sincerity of that pledge, it's clear that Fenty-style glasnost hasn't yet trickled down to the workaholic journalists who trail the mayor 24-7. There's still little warmth in this down-and-down relationship. 

“Adrian Fenty treated the media pretty much like he treated everybody else,” says NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood.

No translation necessary there. It's all on the collective record---Fenty scowling at a news anchor, snapping at a group of print reporters, ducking questions about foreign travel. Generally being a difficult guy to interview.

Yet the local media's troubles with Fenty go well beyond personal interactions and extend into the systematic. Years ago, reporters in the District could get answers to pressing news questions from D.C.  government agencies. They’d contact the department’s flack, nab a statement or a document, and file a report.

Fenty’s people clotted this elegant, time-tested workflow. Once Team Green got settled downtown, info requests to the agencies began boomeranging to the mayor’s office. It became predictable really fast: Ask the D.C. police department for something on a pending case, and they’d tell you to check with the mayor’s PR team. Ask a social services agency for a routine bit of information, same thing.

All of a sudden, the District beat acquired a new hurdle, one that kept reporters from making their deadlines. “I can understand when this happens for major things….but this is often for basic information,” says Washington Post reporter Tim Craig. 

It was all about message control. Last November, WTOP reporter Mark Segraves completed a booming video investigation of Fenty’s use of his police detail. He caught Fenty, flanked by the security patrol, on triathlon-training rides, raising key questions about how the mayor was using taxpayer money. As part of the investigation, Segraves submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the city’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for all kinds of documentation on the travel and expenses racked up by the detail.

He was heartened when the department issued its response. “I was told by MPD that my request was completed and would need to pick it up because it was several boxes,” recalls Segraves. It needed only one more sign-off, Segraves was told, and that was the office of the D.C. attorney general.

That would be Peter Nickles, the fiery AG, longtime Fenty family friend, and close mayoral adviser. A week later, Segraves’ “several boxes” had shrunk to a single envelope. The AG’s office had withheld all the documents, save for one figure that Segraves had requested. “All they gave me was a dollar amount,” says Segraves. “That is par for the course.”

Official obstruction piled on top of other hassles. If you wanted to get face-to-face with the mayor, you’d have to track him down at a ribbon-cutting event, a problem discussed earlier this year by the Washington City Paper.  In those encounters, Fenty generally recited talking points that shed little light on the topic at hand. And if the topic got sticky, he could always say he had to rush off to his next appointment.

“It’s pretty bad that in the four years he’s been mayor, I don’t recall him ever holding a general purpose press conference,” says Sherwood, noting the contrast with predecessor Anthony A. Williams, who held press conferences each Wednesday.

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