Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:
If President Donald Trump is teaching a new generation of politicians how to attack the reporters that cover them, then Fall River Mayor Jasiel F. Correia II is a star pupil.
And if the late Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. had ever offered a master class on how to respond to federal indictments (No Stains On This Jacket 101, perhaps), then Correia would have graduated summa cum laude.
On Oct. 16, Correia held a news conference at Government Center to respond to a 13-count federal indictment charging him with defrauding investors in his SnoOwl smart phone app and filing false tax returns. With news cameras rolling, Correia embarked on what amounted to a 40-minute SnoOwl infomercial, complete with a slideshow. While managing to address the question of how difficult it is to find vegan cheddar soup, he did not answer a single question from reporters.
Instead, when Fall River Herald News reporter Jo C. Goode asked a question about Correia’s tax returns, the mayor’s supporters began shouting “fake news” and chanting his name in support.
At some point in the last few days, after this column was first posted on the Roger Williams University First Amendment blog, all content was removed from the jogoode.com website.
The mayor had tweeted a link to the jogoode.com website after Goode posted a question on Twitter asking if Correia was moving out of his apartment, and he tweeted it again when Goode tweeted that a film crew affiliated with HBO and Mark Wahlberg had filmed Correia at Government Center.
Correia declared that the tweet about his moving was not news. But as much as they would like to, politicians don’t get to decide what’s news. That’s why they call it a free press.
And Correia said the film crew was not associated with HBO or Wahlberg. But he wouldn’t identify who was filming that day, and Goode followed up with a story quoting former Mayor Sam Sutter, who said a production company tied to Wahlberg interviewed him about Correia and former Mayor Will Flanagan.
Plus, if Correia were truly concerned about getting the facts right about the film crew, he could have, you know, given the reporter the facts about the film crew. Instead, the mayor put his energy into creating a website that’s named for the reporter and parrots the president’s anti-press mantra.
Do we need a clearer example of the impact of having a president who has made press-bashing a defining feature of his tenure? This is not a partisan matter: Trump is a Republican and Correia is a Democrat. It is a matter of yet another politician in power attempting to undermine the credibility of a watchdog reporter.
Trump is a true leader in this regard. The Committee to Protect Journalists just reported that, since announcing his candidacy, he has sent 1,339 tweets about the media that were critical, insinuating, condemning or threatening – with “fake news” a regular staple since he took office. At the same time, the Washington Post reports that White House press briefings have gone from a near-daily occurrence to a rarity, as Trump has told press secretary Sarah Sanders “not to bother.”
These trends need to be reversed, not reinforced. Whether indicted or simply slighted, local officials should rely on the facts, not press attacks.
“Public officials forfeit their right to complain about reporting when they hold a so-called news conference and refuse to answer questions,” said Tim White, a WPRI-12 investigative reporter and a member of the New England First Amendment Coalition board. “The mayor would serve himself and the people of Fall River better if he spent his energy being transparent, instead of creating a website that perpetuates the president’s attacks on journalism. Elected officials who lash out at reporters simply because they are unhappy with news coverage need to understand they are also attacking access to information that the people they represent have a right to know.”
New England First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman said “fake news” is a loaded term – one used not to call out inaccurate reporting but to delegitimize journalism.
“Newsrooms make mistakes and should be accountable when they do,” Silverman said. “It would have been entirely appropriate for Correia to discuss with the Herald News his concerns about the story and attempt to correct the record if it needed to be corrected. But he resorted to crying ‘fake news’ and attacking a journalist for doing her job. That doesn’t advance the truth. That doesn’t help the public get a better understanding of the story. That’s just spite toward the one reporting it.”
Correia now faces a recall election on March 12. One day after securing a spot on the ballot, he held another news conference to announce that he’s getting rid of the controversial pay-as-you-throw program, which makes residents pay for city-issued purple trash bags.
And now, Mayor Correia’s “Fake News” attack is where it belongs: In the trash.