There's a new sheriff in the mayor's press office, and he isn't afraid to bust a few egos, if that's what it takes to keep the pack of reporters who cover City Hall in line.
During his first two weeks on the job, communications director Vincent S. Morris has pounced on scribes attempting to conduct unauthorized interviews with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and excluded others from a background briefing on the mayor's crime bill. And on April 6, Morris cut short reporters' questions at the mayor's weekly news conference, saying the session "seemed like it had run its course."
Outraged members of the Fourth Estate marched to the front of the mayor's briefing room to confront Morris, himself a former Washington Times reporter, about that last breach of protocol. Many broadcast journalists and political analysts rely on the Wednesday morning news conference to catch the mayor on tape and engage him in a freewheeling (and often interminable) debate about issues of the day. Ending the session after just 40 minutes struck some as unfair.
"The press conference is just not us sitting there taking notes," objected WTOP political analyst Mark Plotkin.
"If the mayor is planning to have a weekly press conference like the White House, we ought to be told in advance so we can get our questions in writing," declared Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood.
Morris accepted the job as mayoral flack in March after 15 years as a newspaper reporter, including nearly seven in the New York Post's Washington bureau. He replaced Tony Bullock, former aide to the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The smooth-talking Bullock probably would have sought to calm the restive troops. But the more pugnacious Morris refused to back down.
"The policy is we will do an hour if we can. We will do 30 minutes if we can. There is no guarantee," he told the small clot of journalists gathered around him.
If the mayor's in such a rush, what's next on his schedule? Sherwood demanded.
Lunch, said Morris.
"Lunch?" said an incredulous Sherwood. Reporters who make the trek to the John A. Wilson Building and endure the ordeal of finding a parking spot expect a little more consideration, he said.
"Well, I advise you to take the Metro," Morris said. "That's how I get down here."
WAMU political analyst Jonetta Rose Barras started laughing. "This is a new day," she said.
Asked later about the fracas, Morris said he is not under explicit orders to rein in the weekly news conference. But, he said, "I think everyone, not just the mayor, but a lot of people, felt there was no reason for the press conference to simply run until noon just for the sake of running until noon. . . .
"There is a point at which press conferences are not a useful way to spend your time," he said. "And I'm confident the high-quality reporters who cover this city realize they can spend their time in better ways than sitting in a press conference."