The mayor of Harrisburg has decided to stop talking with one of the region’s most popular news sites, because, he said, he opposes what he called their culture of click-bait and “gossip mongering.”
But Mayor Eric Papenfuse's decision to cut off reporters from PennLive this week came shortly after they ran investigative pieces on his personal property holdings and the overtime pay practices of a bookstore he co-owns.
Papenfuse’s spokeswoman Joyce Davis sent PennLive, the website of The Patriot-News newspaper, the following statement: "The Mayor's official statement is that he believes PennLive traffics in hate speech and cynicism. He has instructed me not to respond to inquiries from Pennlive reporters."
PennLive is also no longer invited to the mayor’s weekly briefings, and he's ordered some of his staff to steer clear of the journalists.
But Papenfuse said the website's approach to journalism is what drove him to the decision.
“My concern has to do with their business model, which in my opinion has really had them lose their way and move into a sort of clicks-for-cash gossip-mongering medium,” Papenfuse said. “Somebody needs to stand up to this. They are no longer a legitimate news source, their business model has crossed the line and they are actually hurting the public sphere rather than helping inform people.”
Papenfuse said he considers PennLive’s anonymous comments section to amount to “hate speech.”
“Their comments section is on a daily basis filled with racism, homophobia, personal insults, and, I would say, a debasing and a coarsening of our political discourse,” Papenfuse said.
PennLive’s director of content Mike Feeley wrote of the ban, “It's unfortunate the mayor has taken this position. … PennLive will continue to investigate and report on stories in the city, and we are not deterred by the mayor's information blackout."
Papenfuse denied that two articles in the last month caused the decision, but referred to them as “factually inaccurate and unfair coverage.”
In one, PennLive reported that Papenfuse owned eight properties near a bar he was attempting to close on the basis that it was a “magnet for crime.” Papenfuse called that information “already well-known and not objected to.”
Another piece reported on claims by former employees from a bookstore Papenfuse co-owns that the business was skirting federal law regarding overtime wages. The author of the piece is himself a former employee of the bookstore.
Papenfuse is an outspoken Democrat who earlier this year yanked city police from security duty at the Great American Farm Show, which included a gun show, claiming he wouldn’t do the National Rifle Association (NRA) “any favors.”
Regarding PennLive, he said no department heads or city workers are forbidden from talking to the website, just that his office will no longer communicate with them. He described himself as “ahead of the curve” in “taking a stand against this anonymous hate speech commentary.”
“They reward and judge their reporters based on the number of web traffic their stories generate, and as a result, their stories tend to be conflict-oriented and much more interested in getting clicks than getting at the truth or explaining a complicated subject,” he said. “There’s no censorship here, no kicking anyone out, it is just I am not going to draw traffic to their site and I am not going to be part of their business model.”