NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MISSISSIPPI · Newsgathering · April 14, 2006
Jackson mayor bars reporters from news conference
April 14, 2006 · In the latest in a series of retaliatory moves against journalists in Mississippi’s capitol, Jackson Mayor Frank Melton barred reporters from a news conference in his office Tuesday.
Melton, who told the The Clarion-Ledger that he “keeps getting kicked in the teeth” by the newspaper, prohibited journalists from the paper and WAPT-TV from entering the conference while allowing in reporters and camera crews from two local television stations.
The newspaper received a call notifying reporters about the conference early Tuesday and was told anyone could attend except city hall reporter Kathleen Baydala, according to a report published Wednesday in The Clarion-Ledger.
Baydala ran into problems with the mayor last month, when he told her he “would cream you, personally” if she wrote a story about his use of police officers for personal security, the paper reported.
Managing Editor Don Hudson first decided to accompany Baydala to the news conference before asking her to cover a city council meeting while he attended the conference. According to the paper, security guards told Hudson he could not attend the gathering. When he attempted to enter the mayor’s office and identified himself as a representative of the newspaper, Melton asked him to leave. One of Melton’s bodyguards then escorted Hudson and a reporter and cameraman for WAPT-TV out of the office.
Jeanni Atkins, a University of Mississippi journalism professor and executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, said by e-mail that the mayor’s move was “clearly an effort to retaliate against The Clarion-Ledger because the paper has been critical of him.”
“The action of selectively barring reporters from a press conference clearly violates the First Amendment,” she wrote.
In the Tuesday report, Clarion-Ledger Executive Editor Ronnie Agnew said his reporters have aggressively covered Melton since he took office last summer. A past director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Melton has taken on an unorthodox role in crime-fighting that includes leading police on crime sweeps, conducting random searches of vehicles and carrying weapons while wearing a vest marked “Police” and a badge that says “Mayor.”
Those actions appear to violate Mississippi law and city codes because Melton, a Democrat, is not a certified law enforcement officer in the state, The Clarion-Ledger reported Thursday.
In the Tuesday story, Melton told a reporter the newspaper has not supported his attempts to govern Jackson.
“The people elected me to do certain things, and The Clarion-Ledger doesn’t want me to do it,” he said.
In addition to the criticism of his crime-fighting tactics, Melton clashed with City Council members recently over the removal of a television camera from their chambers. The council’s meetings have been taped and broadcast on a local public access channel since 1989, media reports indicate. City Council President Marshand Crisler, who supports returning the camera, has said he will bring the issue to a vote next week, The Clarion-Ledger reported.
“What’s interesting about this situation is that Mayor Melton and City Council members seem to be at odds over the amount of access to discussions of public business the public should be allowed to have,” Atkins wrote in her e-mail.
Media coverage of the situation might help raise awareness about the need for open government, she added.
“The public attention given to this incident and [the] ban on cameras may help reinforce for Mississippi citizens the need for openness in government.”