An abbreviated version of this email was sent to City Manager Chuck Strome on August 15th informing of my intention to make an issue of the failure of his government to treat Talk of the Sound as a member of the media, the same as the Journal News, WVOX, or Channel 12 News. Mr. Strome replied today with an email that was not responsive to the issue I had raised and so now I published in full this open letter to Mr. Strome so that he and Talk of the Sound readers can understand my position that Mr. Strome has an obligation to deal with Talk of the Sound "as media" and to instruct his staff to do likewise.
Your reply is not responsive to the issues I have raised so let me lay out the entirety of my thinking here in an open letter which I will also published on Talk of the Sound so that you and my readers have the opportunity to understand my intentions going forward even if I do not hear back from you. I apologize in advance for the length of this email but do hope you will set aside a few minutes to read it and perhaps respond so that at the very least you will understand the approach I intend to take in making the case publicly that you are wrong in how you and your government have interacted with Talk of the Sound.
It is my position that it is wrong for you and your government to do anything other than provide Talk of the Sound with the fullest, timely cooperation regarding the issuing of press releases, invitations to cover public events and responding to requests for comment or information and so on and that, generally, Talk of the Sound should be accorded the same treatment as the Journal News, Channel 12 News, The Sound & Town Report, WVOX or any other news outlet. Your government has not done this. Recent incidents -- the City failing to cooperate with my efforts to report on the passing of Jim Stowe and to cover an award ceremony for Youth Bureau interns and Marianne Sussman’s public demand that WVOX ban me from their airwaves and false statements about my reporting on recent NRIDA personnel changes and Barry Fertel’s absurd, unfounded and defamatory accusations that I am a racist -- requires a response.
I intend to make one.
It has been 18 months since you asked me to come to your office for a meeting. I accepted your offer to meet. Kathy Gilwit, who I had not met before either, introduced us and the three of us sat around a conference table adjacent to your office. It quickly became apparent that your primary purpose was to belittle me in front of your staff by heatedly expressing your opinion of my various "failings" as a human being and a journalist. Your conduct was unprofessional and offensive. I felt that I had been duped into attending a meeting under false pretences and then sand-bagged by you and your staff. The basis for your unsolicited and entirely self-serving “critique” of my personal and professional conduct revolved around my not consulting you prior to running a story on remarks made by Council Member Richard St. Paul the week before in which he expressed his view that he was not sufficiently consulted by you and your staff before sending a “wish list” to Albany to get in line for funds from the Obama Administration’s “stimulus” bill. His statement was made in response to a question from a constituent at a public meeting at the American Legion Post 8 Hall on North Avenue. After you had spent about ten minutes disparaging me, you stopped talking and got up to leave as if there was nothing more to say and that I was not entitled to respond.
We had never met before that day. That meeting was my introduction to you. I do not believe you have spoken to me since. I am not likely, however, to forget your unwarranted condescension in that meeting any time soon. It colors all of my perceptions of you and as to how the City government you lead operates - angry, arrogant, hostile and defensive. When you finally stopped talking, I asked if your rising to leave meant you were done and then informed you that I had a few things to say. With what appeared to be great reluctance you ungraciously sat back down as if I had offended you by asking for a chance to respond to your invective. I then asked you to explain which part of my reporting on the "St. Paul/Stimulus Wish List" story you found to be a violation of journalistic ethics. You did not respond, so I continued. I asked whether it was the part where I attended a public meeting where elected officials were taking questions from their constituents? Whether it was the part where I accurately reported the statements made by the elected officials at a public meeting? Whether it was my following up on the story by seeking comment from you? Or perhaps the part where I then published a full account of your view of the matter? Or maybe the part where I published the source document? Or, more generally, where I ended my coverage having published both sides along with the source material and left it for readers to make up their own minds? Your only response to this was to state that there was a story on Talk of the Sound about a truck that incorrectly identified the type of truck -- in other words, you did not respond at all.
My take away from the meeting is that your idea of “journalistic ethics” is that a reporter is required to inform the government before publishing any story about the government and that “cooperation” means giving the government the final say on what is published or lose "cooperation". As I made clear in that meeting, and have ever since, I do not consider the government answering questions, responding to document requests or otherwise being transparent with the press or the public to be a “favor” for you to bestow but your obligation as the head of a public agency in the State of New York. Unwilling to play by your rules in order to have “access” and “cooperation”, I have largely gotten used to be dismissed and ignored by your administration and, as the track record shows, broke story after story anyway, with or without your “cooperation”. Becoming somewhat inured to your angry stares and dismissive body language, it has taken a few rather egregious incidents over the past month to cause me to take notice of this issue again. These incidents represent a new low and led me to make a start at raising all of this as a public issue.
To take the position, as you have, that Talk of the Sound should not be treated as media puts your government on the wrong side of a very long list. In fact, there are just two organizations that have refused a request to recognize Talk of the Sound as media -- the City of New Rochelle and the City School District of New Rochelle. The School District's behavior -- banning me from school property, refusing to respond to FOIL requests, threatening my web-hosting provider in an attempt to shut down my site -- are plainly illegal. I will deal with them all in good time but note the company you are keeping.
Perhaps you are unaware but Talk of the Sound is approaching its two year anniversary. As should be obvious by now, we are not going away and, in fact, our audience continues to grow. When we met in 2009 the site was getting between 2,000 and 3,000 readers a month. Today, the site gets between 20,000 and 30,000 readers a month and we have a quarter-on-quarter growth of 250%. If you search "New Rochelle" in Google, you will see that we are typically ranked somewhere between #10 and #15 out of 3.4 million search results, slightly below the New Rochelle Police Department and slightly above Iona College. You will look long and hard to find WVOX, Channel 12 News or the Journal News on that list. We have had over 300,000 unique visitors to the site and will soon surpass 1 million page views. We have published hundreds of stories and had thousands of comments. Readers keep coming back because we have earned their trust as a reliable, honest news source willing to speak truth to power. We have done that by thoroughly researching our stories, cultivating sources, using Freedom of Information requests to obtain source material and otherwise backing up our stories with documents, photos and video. What has been published on Talk of the Sound is what we can verify through documentation and independent verification from multiple sources. As a result we have never had to retract a story.
Readers know that when we report that a Board of Education employee has been arrested or members of a City agency are running a pornographic web site dedicated to illegal gambling or school officials are illegal soliciting donations from children on school property or government officials are benefiting from property tax exemptions to which they are not entitled that we are coming to the table with arrest reports, mugshots, links, screengrabs, tax records, property cards, satellite photos, and reliable inside sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
Given that a majority of Americans now get their news and information from the web, Talk of the Sound is arguably the most trusted news outlet regularly covering the City of New Rochelle, undoubtedly in the top three in terms of audience and we certainly have the broadest reach. We have more stories about New Rochelle in a week than the Journal News, Channel 12 News, Sound and Town Report, all the major metro dailies, and every other TV and radio news outlets, combined in a month. I except WVOX because they spend a great deal of air time talking about New Rochelle throughout the day and have a primary reporter, Bob Marrone who gets out to cover the higher profile events but in a count of actual news items we have more.
Along the way we have broken many news stories often based on original reporting including quite a few that have been picked up by other area news outlets including Channel 2 News, Channel 4 News, Channel 12 News, Journal News, WVOX, AP, Newsday, Reuters, Sports Illustrated, and many others not to mention thousands of blog web sites. In June, Talk of the Sound was reviewed for consideration and ultimately selected for inclusion in Google News, one of the most heavily visited news sites in the world. Other Google News partners include CNN, The New York Times and Washington Post. In just the past few days, we were added to Topix.com, the leading news aggregation service in the country.
Talk of the Sound is accredited or recognized as media by government agencies including the Westchester County Board of Legislators, the Westchester County Executive, Westchester County Police, New York State Thruway Department, New York State Police, the New York State Unified Court System, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Federal Court System, the U.S Coast Guard, and many others. Locally, Talk of the Sound is recognized as media by the Downtown Business Improvement District, the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion, Monroe College, Iona College, College of New Rochelle, the VFW, UFFA Local 273, and more. Talk of the Sound is recognized by the offices of all of our area representatives -- Assembly Members Amy Paulin and George Latimer, State Senators Jeff Klein and Suzi Oppenheimer, County Legislators Jim Maisano and Sheila Marcotte, and Congresswoman Nita Lowey, and others. Several of them have their own accounts on the site.
On a personal level, I have written for Newsweek, BusinessWeek, USAToday, Congressional Quarterly, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Washington Examiner, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, MSNBC.com, PBS.com, Examiner.com, The New York Daily News, The Associated Press and others. My article for the Fort-Worth Star Telegram, “What America Should Share with the World: Justice Holmes' Dissent in Abrams v. United States and the Marketplace of Ideas” was nominated for the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award, which "recognize annually eligible entries from communications media that have been exemplary in helping to foster the American public's understanding of the law and the legal system." I managed Newsweek's political blog "The Ruckus" over the course of the 2007-08 election cycle and managed the Associated Press blog feed from the "Scooter" Libby Trial, one of the most high profile political trials of the past decade. I have appeared as a guest on Fox News, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, PBS, NPR and been the central subject stories on ABC News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post and many others. I have been quoted in the media hundreds of times on a wide range of topics including, blogger ethics on which I am often cited as an authority having worked to develop one of the earliest Blogger Ethics policies in the United States back in 2004. I partnered with Harvard Law School to create an online course in media law for online publishers and bloggers at NewsU.org, a venture jointly funded by the Knight Foundation (i.e. Knight-Ridder) and the Poynter Institute (owners of the St. Petersburg Times). I partnered with the largest media law insurance company in the world, Media/Pro insurance to create the world's first media liability insurance product for bloggers. I have arranged for legal defense services for hundreds of bloggers for cases involving allegations of defamation, copyright and trademark infringement and false light/privacy violations -- and have never lost a case. I created and ran "Radio Free Nepal" a blog site nominated for a free speech award by a leading German newspaper; the site disseminated news articles and photos after a coup in Nepal shut down the country and banned all news coverage. I worked with organizations in a similar capacity in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and China and organized the first "Anoniblogging Conference" at Vanderbilt University to develop ways to disseminate news and information out and inside of countries controlled by repressive regimes. I organized BlogNashville in Tennessee which was, at the time in 2005, the largest gathering of bloggers ever held. I have been a speaker at conventions for every major press association in the United States including the Society for Professional Journalists, the Radio & Television News Directors Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Newspaper Association of America as well as events for groups ranging from the U.S. Conference on the Judiciary, the First Amendment Center, the Newseum, the Conference of Court Public Information Officers, and at events for educational institutions including Harvard Law School, Standford Law School, the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada-Reno and the journalism programs at the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, UNC-Chapel Hill, Northwestern-Medill, USC-Annenberg, Nevada-Reno and many others including Middle Tennessee State University where I was introduced as a speaker by former Vice President Al Gore. I was featured as one of the inaugural exhibits at the Newseum in Washington, DC for my work in securing the first-ever media credentials for bloggers to cover a Federal trial (U.S. v. Lewis "Scooter" Libby) and for being the first person ever formally credentialed as a blogger by a U.S. Court. I have worked with Sandra Day O'Connor and her Conference for a Fair and Independent Judiciary.
Ironically, I am a recognized authority on blogger credentialing and have been hired by PBS, Gannett, the Newspaper Association of America and many other organizations to provide this service. I have worked with the Secret Service in vetting bloggers and authorizing press passes for two presidential primary debates (Democrats at Howard University in Washington, DC and Republicans at Morgan State in Baltimore, MD). I also did the same for the above-referenced federal trial as well as ASNE/NAA events for Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama in Washington, DC. Also, corporate shareholder meetings, industry trade shows and various private corporate events. I was, of course, credentialed media myself for all of these events and have been for many other including the PGA Tour Championship and Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, AZ. I wrote four articles on Super Bowl week events for Newsweek including interviews with Bart Starr, Tony Dungy, Ladainian Tomlinson, Jerry Reece and members of the New York Giants coaching staff.
In other words, the City of New Rochelle is on a very short list of those refusing to recognize me as a journalist and/or deal with Talk of the Sound as media. And, not for nothing, I have turned my little web site into what many consider the most influential media outlet in New Rochelle without any outside funding or advertising and did so in the face of an openly hostile municipal government and city school district. Maybe some of this will help you understand why I do not take kindly to receiving "lectures" from you on your rather bizarre and unfathomable notions of journalistic ethics under which a reporter is supposed to check with the government before running a story to make sure its acceptable or risk losing "cooperation" with the government.
There is no small irony that the oft-made complaint that Talk of the Sound is only interested in covering "negative" stories emanates almost exclusively from people who work in City Hall, home of the only two organizations that refuse to add Talk of the Sound to their press list which is, presumably, where the City and Board of Education distribute all of their "good news" stories. Even when we cover "positive" events on our own initiative -- the United Water press conference, the Stowe celebration at City Hall, the Youth Bureau Intern Award ceremony -- your government goes out of its way not to cooperate or support our efforts to report on those events.
I have let things slide long enough and now intend to press my concerns. Despite your glaring at me out of some misplaced conviction of being on the moral high ground, the statements made by Ms. Sussman at the last NRIDA meeting regarding my effort to report out the Schulman story are false. I called both Mr. Freimuth and Mr. Schulman prior to the NRIDA meeting. I had already been made aware of the pending changes and understood perfectly well the context -- that Mr. Freimuth is generally unhappy with the staff he inherited and is intent on making changes (and has done so). Deny it if you wish but I know this to the case. Whether they care to admit it or not, I called Freimuth. He was in a meeting. I left a message with Freimuth's secretary and then asked her to transfer me to Schulman. I got his voice mail. I left a very detailed message as to the purpose of my call. Neither of them have ever responded. I might add that I also called Kathy Gilwit but did not leave a message (which I now regret) because she so rarely responds to my requests for information and I have gotten into the bad habit of not bothering with her. I have publicly committed to changing that and will make it a point to always seek her out and then always report her response or, more likely, her failure to respond.
There have been a few other issues but I believe the real low point was failing to include Talk of the Sound in communications with the media regarding the announcement of the Celebration of Jim Stowe's life at City Hall. On the heels of that we now have another low. At the request of a municipal employee (who I will never name so do not ask) I canceled previously made plans and instead spent two hours covering the ceremony honoring interns at City Hall. I took over 100 photos including a series of group shots of the interns all with Kelly Johnson's enthusiastic support. Yet when I asked for help so that I could accurately credit which kids won which awards my requests were repeatedly ignored and I was given the runaround for two days. Tired of waiting, I informed Kathy Gilwit via voice mail and Michelle Oliveros directly on Friday that I had given up and was dropping the story. It was only some time after this that I get a phone call back from Kathy and then emails from Kathy and Michelle containing the information I had requested -- all of it a day later and a dollar short. Kathy called to say that she wanted to apologize, assuring me there was nothing intentional about not providing the information. In a vacuum, I would certainly accept that from her because everyone I know who knows Kathy thinks highly over her but Kathy is not her own boss and there is no vacuum. I see no reason to view this as anything more than another example of a calculated policy within the City government to refuse cooperation with me as I work to report out a story even if that story involves the death of a sitting member of the City Council or crediting children for their good effort in the summer intern program.
I am well aware that neither you, nor Marianne Sussman, Barry Fertel and Noam Bramson, like me, my site and the stories I publish. You are entitled to your personal opinions. What you are not entitled to do is translate your personal opinions into your official conduct. Mr. Fertel has gone so far to accuse me on-air at WVOX of running an anti-Semitic hate site which, according to him, callously tramples on the feelings of descendants of Holocaust survivors. This ludicrous claim was made after I published a photoshopped image of the Mayor against a backdrop of the flag of the Empire of the Rising Sun. Below is a direct quote from Fertel on WVOX with Bob Marrone"
"I did not read Mr. Cox's blog and I was really, really...there were a lot of misstatements-in it that were very inappropriate, they were really hateful. One of the things to compare the mayor to the emperor of Japan, who attacked Pearl Harbor and then later on to compare a descendant of Holocaust survivors to Hitler, is the rankest hate that I have seen on the website yet. And I can tell you, Bob, that whatever is going on, and I am not privy to what is going on... it just seems to me that to compare a Jewish person whose family was lost in the Holocaust to Hitler, is the worst kind of Anti-Semitism...and I think you (GMW) should be condemning that, as well CLUTTER...and I think you should be the one through the public have you seen it?"
I wrote not a single word about Adolf Hitler and certainly made no comparisons between the Mayor of New Rochelle and Hitler. It is not even clear on what basis Mr. Fertel is even making his ridiculous, uninformed claim since he begins his remark by stating that he did not read the article. Apparently, Mr. Fertel is either unable or too stupid to distinguish between General Tojo (Asian guy, military uniform, lots of medals) and Adolf Hitler (short angry guy, brown shirt, tiny little mustache) or believes the Nazis built concentration camps in Japan. In any case, the image was in reference to the "Tora, Tora, Tora" headline regarding the sneaky way the Mayor went about pursuing Home Rule legislation for the Naval Armory as any idiot would know (which perhaps explains why Barry did not know as he is not just "any idiot" but rather a distinguished idiot among idiots as far as idiots go).
Ms. Sussman has gone on the radio to demand that WVOX bar me from their airwaves after I rightly asked why the City of New Rochelle was still doing business with a developer (Forest City) who is under investigation by the Department of Justice for bribing public officials in Yonkers. Maybe there is a good answer but to portray this entirely reasonable question as somehow beyond the pale and grounds for an elected official to encourage media censorship is irresponsible. As noted above, she has also used her position as Chair of the IDA to make what I believe may have been knowingly false statements about me regarding my article on recent personal changes at the IDA. The Mayor has made it widely known that he does not like me very much. In his case, I will make an exception because I have been harsh with him and so he has every reason to dislike me. Regardless, given our large year-on-year growth and ability to drive the news cycle in New Rochelle, I trust the futility of the "Ostrich" approach is becoming apparent even to dimwits like Mr. Fertel. The issue, however, is not whether certain people in government like me, my site or the stories published on the site. The issue here is the government's obligation to support a free press and the First Amendment. The entire point of the First Amendment is to protect media outlets that are not popular with those in power.
One other thing I recall vividly from our meeting was your stated desire to run a professional organization. To my way of thinking, that includes looking beyond any personal animosity and instructing your staff to deal with every news outlet in the same way, even if you do not like the owner or what that outlet publishes. That means. among other things, sending out press releases, arranging interviews, extending invitations to media-availabilities, and providing timely answers to inquiries. If you wish to discuss this further I will do my best to make myself available at your convenience but, past being prologue, I am not expecting a reply. I will figure that if I have not heard from you by the middle of next week that you have rejected this email out of hand and have no wish to discuss any aspect of it. I hope that is not the case and that perhaps we can at least try to hit the "reset" button but if not then, as the saying goes, “it is what it is” and I will do what I need to do.
New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound
As should be clear to readers, Talk of the Sound is not going to stop reporting on the City of New Rochelle or the New Rochelle Board of Education because a small group of self-serving bureaucrats play petty games and throw up various roadblocks. In fact, just the opposite -- as readers have come to see over the past two years. There is rat's nest in City Hall and not sending Talk of the Sound press releases, responding to simple requests for information or advising us of press availabilities is not going to prevent us from exposing it. The purpose of this post is simply to document the behavior of City officials and encourage readers and residents to ask a very simple question -- what are these people so afraid of that they will only provide even the most benign information through a Freedom of Information Act request.
UPDATE: Hezi Aris has his own thoughts on this matter. The Hezitorial: Government Must Traverse the Media Landscape with Agenda-less Impartiality