City employees turn cold shoulder to student reporters

ILLINOIS — Twoweeks after a city manager cut all ties with Southern IllinoisUniversity’s student newspaper, journalists there are scrambling to covernews in the city of Carbondale.

City manager Jeff Doherty toldreporters at the Daily Egyptian, thestudent newspaper at Southern Illinois, that he would no longer comment toreporters and that he had instructed city employees to get his permission beforespeaking to reporters.

According to a March 27 article in the Daily Egyptian, the city managerrebuffed the paper after disapproving of two articles and demanding the paperprint a front-page retraction of one. The newspaper is standing behind thearticles, said Daily Egyptian Editor inChief Zack Creglow.

Doherty did not return phone calls seekingcomment.

The city manager’s ultimatum threatens to put aserious damper on the paper’s coverage of city issues, Creglow said.

“We’re perplexed,” he said. “It’s abad break. We can only hold out hope for so long that they’ll come aroundbefore it starts affecting coverage in a negative way.”

Creglow said since Doherty cut ties with the paper two weeks ago, city employees have not returned reporters’ calls. When reporters show up at city offices, they are re-rerouted or turned away, he said.

A few weeks ago, the Daily Egyptian attempted to write astory about Carbondale’s tornado preparedness after severe storms rippedthrough southern Illinois. But city employees did not respond to interviewrequests, and the story had to be dropped, Creglow said.

In an effort to ascertain what exactly Doherty said to city employees, newspaper staff filed two Freedom of Information Act requests under Illinois public records laws. One request asked for “any official or unofficial communication” fromthe city manager’s office to any city employee in regard to the Daily Egyptian or its staff.

Within hours of filing the second request, the city denied thepaper’s request on the grounds that “no such records existed,”Creglow said.

He said the paper has since filed a third request thatasks for records from an earlier starting date.

In the meantime,Creglow said his reporters have managed to cover the city. But the paper is alsomaking efforts to inform people why, given the impasse with the city manager, itis unable to “report properly,” Creglow said.

Thesituation highlights a reoccurring problem with city staff, he said. It’sthe “Scooby Doo” mentality, he pointed out, where student reporterswho approach city employees are treated like “those darnkids.”

“We need them to take it seriously,” he said. “Doherty’s belief is what we’ve done is abnormal for reporters to do.”

Doherty first expressed dissatisfaction withthe paper’s city coverage after seeing an article that discussed the CityCouncil’s indecision on adebt-ridden childcare center. He claimed the headline, “Fate of Hayescenter undecided,” was inaccurate, according to an article in the Daily Egyptian.

In another instance, the student paper obtained and published an e-mail Doherty sent to city staff regarding the retirement of the city’s police chief. In thee-mail, he told staffers the police chief was retiring because he failed toestablish residency in Carbondale. A press release issued by Doherty did notdisclose this fact.

Doherty called the paper’s actions inrunning the e-mail “unforgivable,” according to an article in thestudent newspaper.

“If we stay with the press release, that’s bad journalism,” Creglow said of theincident.

Creglow said the newsroom had faced the same roadblockswhen it started reporting more rigorously on university staff and events. Whenreporters proved themselves to be persistent and accurate, university officialseventually warmed to their efforts, he said.

Creglow said he hopes the same will be true for the paper’s future dealings with the city of Carbondale.

“Sources started coming from everywhere when peoplesaw we have a passion for covering this city,” he said. “We have apassion for accurately covering what’s going on, and we have found othersources coming out of the woodwork.”

Brad Cole, thecity’s mayor, and several Carbondale city officials did not return callsfor comment. One receptionist for City Finance Director Ernie Tessone directedquestions to Doherty’s office.

City council member Sheila Simon said she is familiar with the rift between the city manager and the Daily Egyptian but did not have directinformation from Doherty on the situation.

“My hope is that it’s something that will be resolved quickly,” Simon said of thesituation. “It’s in everyone’s interest to have the city and all media outlets communicating well.”

Simon said no one has instructed her not to communicate with DailyEgyptian reporters, and that she would speak with student reporters whocontacted her.

“I think it’s important because city newsis important to students and the Daily Egyptian is important to the greater community,” Simon said.

“There’s all sorts of reasons for the Daily Egyptian to have good, accurateinformation.”

Eric Fidler, faculty adviser to the Daily Egyptian, said he was“baffled” by Doherty’s decision to cut ties with thepaper.

Fidler said in two decades of reporting for the Associated Press and The Miami Herald, he had encountered city officials who were “hostile, rude, arrogant and any number of things,” but said he had never encountered an official who flat-out refused to speak to a news organization.

He said the paper had no game plan if the third FOI request was denied or yielded no new information.

“Whatever we do, we want to leave some room toreopen a relationship with [Doherty],” he said. “Our ultimate goalisn’t to make the guy look bad.

“I don’t care if he’s mad as long as he talks. We’re not going to issue a retraction for a story that was correct and we’re not going to apologize for coveringthe news aggressively.”