How my request for an interview with the leading candidate for Philadelphia mayor led to a story that wouldn’t die
Ask any journalist what their personal nightmare is, and most will tell you it’s becoming the story.
To become the story puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Part of the reason I became a journalist in the first place is because I’d rather tell the stories than be the story. Most of the people I interview are a lot more interesting than I am and if you ever sat and talked to me, you’d know that.
So, when I reached out to the candidates running for mayor of Philadelphia – Democrat Cherelle Parker and Republican David Oh – to find out how they’ll address the mental health needs of people impacted by gun violence, it was just another day at the office.
That’s a critically important story in Philadelphia. Almost every person that works with victims of gun violence here will tell you that trauma is at its center. While it sounds simplistic to say that hurt people hurt people, that’s exactly what happens. When you talk to those affected, the pain radiates from them in a way that’s visceral. You can’t help but feel it yourself.
Yet somehow as I tried to press this request, I ended up becoming the story because, unfortunately for Parker, someone in her campaign’s press office hadn’t learned the Cardinal Rule of E-Mail: Never hit “reply all” and “send” unless you want everyone on the email you’re responding to see your response.
(I also learned that it’s not a good idea to anger Lawrence McGlynn, my co-host on Philadelphia Hall Monitor, our weekly TV and radio show on Philadelphia government and politics. You’ll see why in a minute.)
When MindSite News assigned me to ask Parker and Oh about their plans to handle the mental health needs of Philadelphians impacted by gun violence, I didn’t think I was asking anything too controversial or surprising.
But while Oh and I were able to sit down and talk right away, I spent most of the summer trying to connect with the Parker campaign to set up an interview.
To some extent, I understood. Unlike Parker, Oh didn’t have to fight though an 11-person primary to win his slot on the ballot. Parker also had to have emergency dental surgery during the May primary, so talking was a problem for her. She’s also got a 10-year-old son she wanted to spend time with. I get it.
But by the time I bumped into Parker at a political fundraiser in August, I had followed the lead of the Philadelphia Inquirer and sent her some questions. I hadn’t gotten answers to them yet and spoke to her about that. She said she wasn’t doing interviews until after Labor Day, and while that left me scratching my head, I let it go.
That is, until Larry got an email from the Parker campaign on Sept. 7. The campaign reached out to him to set up an interview for the Philadelphia Hall Monitor but forgot to remove him when campaign officials started talking among themselves.
He sent the email to me – and I finally understood why I was having a problem getting this interview in the first place. Check out these exchanges involving Deputy Campaign Manager John Dolan and Aren Platt, another campaign operative.
Dolan: I would suggest pushing off Lawrence and moving forward with Denise. I can slow roll him for a few weeks.
Platt: Let’s push her off without letting her know… “Denise, I’m working on getting this scheduled, give me a week or so…” Just be careful because she has already said that we are ignoring Black women journalists and truly independent media – irrespective of other circumstances. But we don’t want this to be too much of a narrative.
Dolan: “Let me talk with Denise Clay-Murray tomorrow. She wants to do a profile and we just answered a bunch of questions for her…I’m disinclined to do all the requests from both Denise + Lawrence for pieces that won’t get much coverage.”
There’s a lot about this that still rankles me.
First of all, I’m troubled because I think that a city that’s filled with people traumatized by gun violence needs to know what you’re going to do to help them if you’re holding the city’s highest office.
If you’ve spent several months running for an office where gun violence and its impact on the population has taken center stage to the exception of everything else, wouldn’t it make sense to talk about it? Especially for a publication that is focused squarely on mental health?
And second, once Larry’s column on this incident hit the streets, I spent much of that weekend being interviewed by other reporters, which is my least favorite experience ever.
Since all of this happened, I have interviewed Parker for Philadelphia Sunday Sun, a local news outlet serving Philly’s Black community. That interview was scheduled before all hell broke loose, making what happened with the email an unforced error. She apologized, and I appreciate that.
Also, her office did provide written answers to some questions I sent her on behalf of MindSite News. I can’t say her answers to those questions provided much detail or substance, and there certainly wasn’t enough there to build a story around. But she did at least make some commitments which I think are worth noting.
Here are three things she said in her emailed responses:
“We are behind the eight ball when it comes to providing enough services to meet the demand for mental health treatment. As Mayor, I will make further investments and, as such, my administration will be looking to use every tool in the toolbox to ensure we are providing world-class services for the people who are struggling the most in Philadelphia. That is going to entail a review of how things have been done in the past, as well as bringing our state and federal partners together to collaborate resources.”
“We cannot address the issue of gun violence if we do not engage with our neighborhoods and their community groups. That means continuing to support programs that are already on the ground working on violence prevention and intervention – but also giving them backroom financial, technical, and managerial support so that they can efficiently and productively run their non-profits efficiently with increased funding. But the hallmark of this work will be neighborhood by neighborhood investments.”
“In regard to trauma-informed care, those are investments that I plan on integrating into policing, public education, and community organizations. We cannot ignore the mental and physical toll that violence has taken on the people most affected, and without trauma-informed care, we cannot begin to address the roots of the cycle of violence that has plagued our city.”
Finally, let me just say I hope that whomever Parker hires for her press office should she become mayor understands that reporters aren’t asking questions just to be nosy or annoying. The questions we ask are connected to people, especially when the topic is gun violence.
And last I looked, it’s people who decide elections.
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