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Louisville mayor's approach to recent press conferences raises transparency concerns

Man in suit standing in front of microphone looking to his left
J. Tyler Franklin
Mayor Craig Greenberg's spokesperson said he is committed to transparency.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, who has promised residents he’ll make city government more transparent, has recently tried to limit which local media outlets attend press briefings on important issues, including gentrification and ethics concerns involving his wife.

At least twice in the last two weeks, the mayor’s office broke from its standard of widely informing the city’s news outlets of opportunities to hear from the mayor and ask him questions. Multiple major news outlets did not receive timely notices for those press conferences. That prompted a complaint from the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“It is the expectation of Louisville’s professional journalism community that all news media be given equal access to information from the mayor’s office. We may work for different outlets but we work together to inform the public on behalf of our community,” they said in the letter, which was emailed Friday to the mayor’s office and his spokesperson, Kevin Trager.

On Friday, Trager said in a statement that the mayor will “continue to be accessible, responsive, and transparent.”

The SPJ letter, obtained by LPM News, noted an incident that happened on Nov. 30, when Greenberg spoke with some TV news stations. He addressed them about his decision not to sign an ordinance Louisville Metro Council approved unanimously to try to keep residents in historically Black neighborhoods from being forced out of their communities by development. The SPJ said it understood “an informal invite went out to certain media outlets for a press gaggle at the Galt House regarding opposition to the anti-gentrification ordinance.”

The mayor’s office did not contact LPM and the Courier Journal about the availability, despite both outlets having dedicated Metro Government reporters. Spectrum, Louisville Business First and The Record also did not receive notice, SPJ said.

Representatives for the mayor’s administration regularly send planning advisories to a broad list of local media. This week, they alerted news outlets to press conferences on the mayor’s economic development plan, a meeting with the incoming Attorney General of Kentucky and an update on a campus for unhoused people.

The office departed from that approach again on Thursday for a briefing at Metro Hall about the ethics complaint against Greenberg. Based on a tip, LPM News was on the premises Thursday afternoon. Trager, the mayor’s spokesperson, called to ask LPM to join just 15 minutes before the briefing was scheduled to start.

Local media undeterred

At Thursday’s briefing, Courier Journal columnist Joe Gerth grilled the mayor about media events his office held “in which not all news organizations were told about it in advance.” Like LPM, Gerth said the newspaper’s reporters weren’t told about the meeting until the last minute.

“What’s going on here?” Gerth asked Greenberg. “Are you trying to shut out news organizations that don’t write stories or broadcast stories the way you want them written and broadcast?”

Greenberg said that was not his intent.

“I’m very happy that you are here today to ask whatever questions you would like about my wife or me,” he responded.

Asked if the mayor’s office had a policy of excluding certain news outlets from briefings, Greenberg said he wasn’t aware of any such policy. Greenberg agreed to look into the issue after a series of follow up questions from Gerth.

Trager did not respond directly to LPM’s questions about Greenberg’s policies around press access and his actions in the past two weeks. Instead, he detailed other recent press conferences for which Trager used the typical notification process.

“Since taking office in January, the mayor has hosted more than 30 press conferences and invited every local media organization to attend and ask questions at each event,” Trager said.
“He participates in media interviews at least five times per week, often stopping to answer reporters’ questions at various public events around the city.”

Trager noted that Greenberg recently did one-on-one interviews with LPM on other topics, including Louisville's priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session and the police department's failure to comply with state open records laws when it comes to body camera footage.

“We also provided similar availability to TV networks to accommodate their on-camera interview needs,” he said.

The mayor’s recent actions raise concerns about transparency and accountability, but may not be illegal, said Louisville attorney Michael Abate, who works with LPM and other local media outlets on press freedom issues.

He said whether these incidents violate the Constitution hinges, in part, on intent — whether the administration’s actions were an oversight or reprisal for critical reporting. He said a federal court in Washington D.C. found limiting access as retaliation was illegal in a high-profile case involving CNN’s Jim Acosta.

“If they were being targeted by a government official for disfavored access because of their coverage, that could raise questions under the First Amendment and improper retaliation for the content or the viewpoint of the speech,” he said.

Abate acknowledged he did not know why Greenberg’s office did not invite all media outlets to conversations about important topics. But he said, regardless of intent, the impact is concerning.

“We need a robust, vigorous, open dialogue between the government leaders and the press, and we need all media outlets to be there to cover,” he said.

Fernanda Camarena, a former reporter and editor who’s now a faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said public officials have a duty to be transparent about their work. Part of that duty, she said, should be to answer reporters’ questions.

Camarena said it appears public officials across the country have become less inclined to do that.

“Audiences are also more skeptical of media, and that’s empowered officials to shut it down,” she said. “If people don’t like the media, why should an official speak with them?”

When officials put up roadblocks, Camarena said, journalists have to “keep pushing forward and provide complete, accurate and fair reporting.”

In a statement Friday, LPM President and CEO Stephen George said the public has a fundamental right to know what its elected officials are doing, and journalists are “the people’s conduit to information that will affect their lives.”

“Withholding access and information from certain media outlets undermines the very transparency this administration claims to prioritize,” George said. “It stinks of basic indifference to the public’s right to know, and LPM will push back against it.”

The Courier Journal’s Executive Editor Mary Irby-Jones said in an email that the paper “will continue to uphold democracy whether or not we are ‘invited’ to a press briefing.” She said they stand by their recent reporting on the role of Rachel Greenberg in her husband’s administration. The mayor criticized the articles as “inaccurate” and lacking context in the Thursday briefing, which was about Greenberg’s request to dismiss the ethics complaint against him.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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