Harper vs. Herenton: Rounds Two and Three
It's the story that's been buzzing around some Memphis websites for days now. See my post a bit below this one. After Tuesday's Rotary Club meeting, in which Herenton talked about consolidation and questioned the intelligence of those who opposed it, the Mayor was giving a group stand-up interview to local reporters when WPTY/24's anchor Cameron Harper walked up.
Harper pointed out, and I'm paraphrasing here, that Herenton had talked before about taking the drastic step of surrendering the City's charter to force consolidation with the County. Given that and Herenton's difficult relationship with members of the City Council and other public figures, Harper pressed, which appears to have hampered his efforts, if it would further the goal of consolidation, would he resign as Mayor? Herenton was thown by the question, which Harper pressed some more. Eventually, after some frustrating back and forth, Herenton told Harper that he had gone off on some unrealistic tangent that Herenton didn't want to waste time with. He terminated the interview and tried to walk away.
Here's where it gets sticky. The Mayor claims that Harper put hands on him. Herenton can be heard on WMC's tape threatening to "lay him out." But that tape is focused on Herenton's head and shoulders, so none of Harper's actions can be seen at all. On the WPTY tape shown tonight at 9 and 10PM, you can see a bit more. They broadcast the entire incident unedited. You can see Harper move toward the Mayor, but the left hand in question, and Herenton's right arm, are still out of the frame. Judging by Herenton's movements, it doesn't appear that he was subject to anything more than a hand on his arm. You can't see Herenton jerk, nor does his right shoulder drag as though pulled. What you do see is Herenton stop, standing very still.
Now, in a letter released to all media outlets this afternoon, Herenton has claimed, speaking of Harper:
an observed media employee made physical contact on the Mayor during an interview. After this physical contact, the media employee had to be restrained and prevented from making further unwanted and offensive contact.Herenton's claims of restraint and offense are wild exaggeration. Calling it "harassing or abusive" fits only in Herenton's imperial mind. He's making a huge, outsized drama of the situation to club the local media and make them back off.
While I would be well within my rights as a citizen to file a complaint for assault, it would not be in the best interests of the city to do so at this time based on one incident. However, under no circumstances, will the Office of the Mayor accept the media's behavior in the future that is of a harassing or abusive nature.
To his great credit, WPTY/24 News Director Jim Turpin immediately fired back with his own official response, where he called Herenton's claims "falsified and invented." Turpin unequivocally stands by his reporter and throws the ball back into Herenton's court. You can read both documents here. Even if Dee Griffin seems to be trying, on camera, to stay out of this, the whole of WPTY and Clear Channel -- and especally JIm Turpin -- are to be commended for not putting up with this nonsense.
Note that the letters are transcribed and there are, as yet, no scans of the actual documents. Hopefully, they or another station will rectify this ommission. It's the Internet Age folks, you really should be putting original source material on the Web as much as possible.
There's a related story on the WMC/5 website. They also have posted their video, which isn't helpful except for catching Herenton's clear threat of violence. Also, you have to have the latest version of Windows Media Player to view it. Same for WPTY's video. Again, come on people, it's the Internet Age. Don't assume viewers have the latest and greatest computers or software; most don't. I sure don't! Offering Quicktime or RealPlayer wouldn't hurt either. Serve your viewers, don't make them work for you.
Read the comments in my post below, and at Peg's blog. (If this is being discussed anywhere else, please leave a link in comments.) You'll see that the media pros are universal in their abuse of Harper, saying that he was out of line and unprofessional. Many seem to feel he did assault the Mayor. I think the tapes make it clear he didn't.
However, Harper was a hog. You'll notice that WPTY's tape starts with Harper already talking to the Mayor. You don't seem him walk up or how he interacted with the press already there. You can also see that he's in front of the rest of the press, alongside Herenton. My suspicion is that Harper barged in, eager for a face-to-face with Herenton.
Cameron Harper is a unique case. Most all of the local anchors still adhere to the bland neutrality of their profession, limiting comment on stories to generic statements of unquestionable universality. Not Cameron. I cannot count the number of times he'll make a comment setting up or coming out of a story that seems personal and pointed. It's like he's bursting to tell you what he thinks. It's like he's trying to FOX-ify things. Especially when it comes to Mayor Herenton, for whom he seems to have a special animus. You can see, reading between the lines, that most local reporters are exasperated by Herenton's media tactics. Harper lets his show.
Last year, WPTY did a "look back" special on the Summerstorm of 2003 (Hurricane Elvis, as most locals call it). One part of the special, done by Cameron, was meant to look at Mayor Herenton's odd behavior in the aftermath of the storm. He is, after all, the Mayor of the City and a figurehead expected to reassure the populace. Herenton was not visible initially and blew off a later visit by Governor Bredesen to attend a fund-raiser in Little Rock held by the firm that was later implicated in the MLGW bond problems. Harper noted that Herenton declined to participate in the program, so he just asked his questions of an empty chair! Zing and point made.
Friday night, Cameron also mentioned that WPTY gave Herenton an open invitation on Tuesday to an unedited half-hour interview program. Herenton declined again, but what politician wouldn't? It was yet another dare on Cameron's part.
And that's what I like about this. Harper is upsetting the local media applecart. The Commercial Appeal has made an art of bending over backwards for Herenton. The television stations just play the usual media game, even though Herenton has been broadcast saying that he'll lie to them and avoid them if he sees fit! Herenton treats them like his bitch and they keep on playing along because that's the "rules." That's "how it's done." It's like watching the King and his Loyal Opposition. The time for this sort of deference is long past.
Harper has upended all that and good for him. As I noted elsewhere, a smart reporter at that scene would have jumped in with more questions on a different topic before the Mayor walked away and while he was still frazzled. Without a doubt, Herenton would have let slip with more interesting comments.
It's time for the local media to up the ante on Herenton. If the media takes seriously their self-professed role of voice of the people then they need to start making Herenton talk. All those ambush interviews they do of nickel-and-dime con artists, banging on doors and interviewing the neighbors, being "on your side," need to be applied to the Mayor until he's responsive and open. Open an I-Team Investigation, for heaven's sake. Bravo to Harper for taking things to that level.
One example: A couple of weeks ago, Mayor Herenton appeared before the City Council. He had been asked to provide a list of salaries in his office, with an eye to explaining any increases. Instead, Herenton threw back in the Council's faces a list of their own staff's pay increases. The media followed. Not one reporter thought to notice that Herenton hadn't answered the question and had managed to change the focus. It took a while for anyone to notice.
I hope that the other stations will follow now that Harper's kicked in the door, but I suspect "journalistic ethics" and "professionalism" will still rule the bland roost. Heck, WREG/3's Mike Matthews seems tailor made for it, even if he's a puffball at heart, where Harper seems made of pointier, more dangerous, stuff. Have at it!
One last point. I think that at least part of the problem in the Harper/Herenton incident is sociocultural. Life in Memphis has taught me many lessons, one of which is: when things get heated, never lay hands on a black man. You can get up in his face, but do not touch him. If you do, it's on. Whites are more the opposite. Don't get in their personal space, but using a hand to stop someone from walking away is not an immediate problem.
Harper seems like a nice guy, but also a very white one. I'm sure he had no clue that what he did, laying a hand on the Mayor, is taboo to black men in a heated situation. You just don't do it. Period. That's why Herenton stiffens up and stops in his tracks. It was a surprise and seemed to offend Herenton. It's why Herenton quickly upped the ante by threatening to lay Harper out. Look at the security guard and Carson; neither one puts hands on Harper much, using their bodies to block the two. I'd bet any money it was an innocent mistake on Harper's part, but in racially charged Memphis that can be explosive nonetheless, doubly so when the Mayor often seems to care more about his black constituents than the white, triply so the whites who oppose him or give him "mess."
It will be interesting to watch how this unfolds. Will Herenton punish WPTY by restricting access or some other minor harrassment? Will he change his media behavior? Will the media distance themselves from WPTY? Will they heap approbations on them? Will they use this opportunity to change their own behavior towards the Mayor? Will they turn up the pressures?
People who want to hear how this plays are encouraged to listen to the talk shows on WDIA (AM1040) for the view from black Memphis. I'm guessing they will laugh at Herenton, but back him. The Andrew Clark show (WMC AM600, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 3PM) will also likely discuss this. I'm hoping Clark can get Cameron on the show, as they are Clear Channel stablemates.
Fun days coming.
MIDNIGHT UPDATE It occurred to me later to ask: was Cameron Harper the only WPTY reporter on the scene or was there a regular reporter there doing the usual Mayoral coverage? In either case, why did Cameron decide to get out from behind the desk and go out on location? Was he planning something? If anyone there can fill me in, I'd like to hear it.
1/16/05 6PM UPDATE Two sources now have it that Mayor Herenton said "I'm going to drop him." I didn't make notes, but I thought I heard the Mayor say "lay him out." My apologies!
The Commercial Appeal, still wedded to a daily cycle for news, has the story today, though it's a bare bones version. Again, the paper allows the reporter to summarise the words of others, rather than letting original sources speak for themselves as WPTY and WMC are doing. They do have some new quotes from the Mayor, but those quotes don't add anything new.
WMC and WPTY both reran their tapes. WPTY's story tonight was a virtual repeat of Friday's WPTY and WLMT presentation, almost to the word, as though the same script was recycled. Nothing on WREG/3's site as of this update, and nothing on the WHBQ/13 5PM newscast. (WHBQ has no web site at the moment.)
No one has posted scans of the Herenton letter nor the WPTY response.
Good discussion of the subject on the Andrew Clark show this afternoon. Listeners might have recognised "Mike from Midtown." Clark, a longtime Herenton fan, is becoming disillusioned at last. He also said he'd try to get Cameron Harper on, to discuss his side of the story. WMC did a "Viewer's Response" segment, but it was the usual artificially balanced thing: two "blames Herenton" vs. two "blames Harper." No idea what the actual ratio of responses was.
It's too soon to expect to see anything in the Commercial Appeal's Sunday edition. Probably, Wendi Thomas will have something on Tuesday. (My prediction: Chastising Harper for not following journalistic practice and being a bad reporter while also chiding the Mayor, but not quite as much. She may work race into it.) I wonder if the Mayor will use the paper to print some kind of scold, disguised as a guest editorial.
1/16/05 7PM UPDATE WMC/5 reporter/blogger Darrell Phillips is weighing in with some thoughts:
There has been some digital debate over whether the rest of the Memphis press corps should be as tenacious as Cameron Harper was this week, as aggressive. While I believe strongly in the "determined" quest for truth (etc. etc.), many of my colleagues and I have learned that each Memphis story must be a cost-benefit analysis. And we proceed accordingly. While the Mayor might (hypothetically) grant an interview about pay raises today, he might not avail himself to me tomorrow. My chances might be lessened by the nature of my questions or the composition of the actual story. So every day/night, we must decide if today's piece is worth tomorrow's access.Good points, and I'd agree that Harper likely wasn't thinking past the moment. Phillips has much more, including a link to WMC's audio of the incident, enhanced to make Herenton's comments a bit clearer.
Cameron Harper didn't have to worry about that. And that is a luxury that you must plug into this equation. Harper had little to lose by pissing the Mayor off over his line of questioning. Harper is an anchor. And while he "reports" on City politics every day and DOES interview elected officials on occasion, he is simply not tasked with making that daily call to H's spokesperson.
On the other hand, transparency in government is vital, and a good press is necessary to that transparency. When you have a cloak-and-dagger man like Herenton, pressing the issue regardless of cost may be called for. The press will report regardless of cooperation. What's a government official going to do if the press doesn't work with him? Where else can he go to get the message out?
Remember, the guy who owns the camera always gets the last word.