Politicians and reporters often get along like oil and water. But when you're running for office, you generally suck it up for an hour and smile prettily for the reporter and then bitch about it afterwards over a glass of bourbon (or maybe iced tea) with your pals. That's politics. Like, do you really think Michele Bachmann was all gung-ho about having the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza on her private plane? It's just what you do. And then when you get elected you can make a game of withholding documents from reporters and only giving interviews to the ones who were really nice to you on the campaign trail. But when you're still running? You generally play along.
Not so Ron Peabody.
Peabody apparently doesn't like Metro Pulse. That's fine. A lot of people don't like Metro Pulse. Which is only to be expected. Peabody first came to public attention through his involvement in leading the opposition to the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Then after two months as the co-chairman, Peabody stepped down from the TYP's quasi-successor, Compassion Knoxville, in order to run for City Council.
That was in early June. On June 30, when I reported on this forum, I asked Peabody a) if he was willing to share his tax returns with us; and b) who is the "MB Mitchell" that registered the domain for his campaign website. He said yes to the former and said he had no idea what I was talking about to the latter. The next week he changed his mind about the tax stuff, as I reported last month.
Since that evening, Peabody has not answered or returned a single phone call left either by managing editor Jesse Mayshark or me--and for the record, I've left messages on his cell phone and his work voicemail. (I've also tried to call his home phone, but it seems to be disconnected.) I left several messages--and sent e-mails--when I was reporting on Peabody's Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganization filing earlier this year, trying to get his side of the story, but he did not respond.
And you know what? That's also fine. People don't respond to comment all the time. Politicians ignore reporters all the time. It's just part of both of our jobs. Sometimes people don't get the message to respond for comment in time. Sometimes they pointedly ignore you. Sometimes they say unprintable things when you ask them for comment. It's how it goes.
So when the MP staff divvied up the coverage of the City Council races a few weeks back, I ended up with the assignment to write about the At-Large Seat C race, profiling candidates Sharon Welch, Finbarr Saunders, and Ron Peabody. I sent the same e-mail to all three candidates to try to set up an interview with each. Within 24 hours I had appointments scheduled with Saunders and Welch. Here's the full text of what happened with Peabody:
My original query:
(I should note here that I am deleting both Peabody's and my own signature files from all of these e-mails, because they are long, and that gets repetitive pretty easily. But you can feel free to contact me here and Peabody here. Oh, and all punctuation/spelling/what-have-you is sic.)From: Gervin, CariSent: Thursday, July 28, 2011 5:10 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Seat C ProfileDear Mr. Peabody,We are working our way through profiling each City Council race, and I will be working on an article covering Seat C. I'd like to set up a time to sit down and interview you next week. At this point my schedule is wide open, so please let me know when would work with your schedule.Thanks,Cari Gervin
Peabody gets back to me the next day:
I respond:From: Ron PeabodySent: Friday, July 29, 2011 12:30 PMTo: Gervin, CariSubject: Re: Seat C ProfileDear Ms. Gervin,Thank you for the invitation to be interviewed.I would prefer to be interviewed by a different Reporter from the Metro Pulse.Thank you,Ron Peabody
After talking to Jesse when he got back from lunch, I respond again:From: Gervin, CariSent: Friday, July 29, 2011 12:52 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Re: Seat C ProfileI can ask Jesse Mayshark about it, but it's my understanding you aren't too fond of him either. But Jesse and I are the only two reporters who do political coverage.
After another discussion with Jesse, I posit the following:From: Gervin, CariSent: Friday, July 29, 2011 1:33 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Re: Seat C ProfileJesse says he cannot report on Seat C because he is a casual acquaintance of Finbarr's and does not in any way want to give the appearance of a conflict of interest. You of course do not have to talk to us at all, but that will make my profile rather lopsided.Cari
Peabody thinks about it and agrees.From: Gervin, CariSent: Friday, July 29, 2011 4:06 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Re: Seat C ProfileIf you refuse to meet with me in person, we could also do an over-the-phone interview or an email interview.
From: Ron PeabodySent: Sunday, July 31, 2011 1:06 PMTo: Gervin, CariSubject: RE: Seat C ProfileDear Ms. Gervin,I will consent to an email interview.Ron Peabody
I immediately realize an e-mail interview is kind of like a debate with no chance of rebuttal and send the following missive:From: Gervin, CariSent: Sunday, July 31, 2011 3:37 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Re: Seat C ProfileWonderful. I will send you some questions on Tuesday.
Peabody does not like my idea:From: Gervin, CariSent: Sunday, July 31, 2011 4:41 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Re: Seat C ProfileNow that I'm thinking about it, I think it might be more fair to you if, instead of just emailing you a list of questions, I send a few, then you reply, then I send a few followup, etc, over the course of the next couple of days - something that would be more of like an actual dialogue than just a one-sided q & a - would this be ok? I feel like that will give you a better position to balance yourself against the other candidates, with whom I am conducting in-person interviews.
I come up with a list of questions, run them by Jesse for tweaking, and send them to Peabody:From: Ron PeabodySent: Sunday, July 31, 2011 9:39 PMTo: Gervin, CariSubject: RE: Seat C ProfileDear Ms. Gervin,Would prefer to get all the questions together.Thank you,Ron Peabody
*(Duh. I meant Chapter 13.)From: Gervin, CariSent: Monday, August 01, 2011 4:55 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Interview QuestionsPlease e-mail me a response to all of the following by the end of the day Wednesday, so I'll have to time to follow up with you in case of clarification. I've attached the questions in a file too, in case that's easier for you.Thanks,Cari***Before we get started, please explain why you would not consent to an in-person interview or a phone interview.Now for the boring questions. (I realize a lot of this is in your campaign material, but I'd rather you have you spell it all out in case of any errors ...)How old are you?Where did you grow up? If in Knoxville, in what neighborhoods?How long have you lived in your current neighborhood?Please summarize your family life (i.e., length of marriage; ages of children, etc.).Please summarize your educational background (schools, degrees, etc.).Please summarize your professional experience. (How long have you been with New York Life? Have you always worked in life insurance? etc.)Please summarize your civic experience. (And please especially detail any and all experience beyond that of your involvement with TYP/Compassion Knoxville.)Are there any other personal details you think it's important voters know about you?Ok, now on to the campaign.Why do you think your professional and civic experience qualifies you for a seat on city council?Why do you think you're the best choice for voters in Seat C?You have made lengthening the yellow lights at intersections with red-light cameras one of the three main tenets of your campaign. Why do you feel like this is one of the top three issues facing Knoxville?On your website you say, "Recent studies show that longer yellow lights actually increase safety at intersections by reducing all accidents while also greatly reducing the number of tickets written." Can you tell me where I can find those studies?You filed for Chapter 11* bankruptcy reorganization in February. (If you want, please feel free to explain the circumstances that led to this here.) What would you say to a potential voter concerned about that?Your campaign website was registered by "MB Mitchell." Could you explain the role played in your campaign by Michael Blake Mitchell? Are you aware of Internet aliases Mr. Mitchell posts under to assorted Knoxville websites? Should any of Mr. Mitchell's activities be of concern to you or to potential voters?For clarification, can you point to where in your campaign disclosure forms is any indication of expense or in-kind donation related to your campaign website? (Please note: You're not the only candidate with this issue.)Do you not think there's any contradiction between your desire to make government more "open" and your refusal to answer questions about who was involved in TYP Choice and/or your campaign?Given your discomfort in dealing with the media -- prior refusals to answer difficult questions and return phone calls -- do you think you're ready to serve in a public capacity?
At the end of the day last Wednesday, Peabody sends me the following e-mail.
This is the letter. The text below was in a PDF attached to the e-mail. All grammar and spacing is sic. (Read the actual document here: Cari Gervin Letter.pdf)From: Ron PeabodySent: Wednesday, August 03, 2011 5:17 PMTo: Gervin, CariSubject: RE: Interview questionsDear Ms. Gervin,Please refer to my attached Letter.Ron Peabody
I replied:August 3, 2011Cari GervinMetro Pulse602 S. Gay Street, 2nd FloorKnoxville, TN 37902Dear Ms. Gervin,When you first asked me to release my Tax returns and Income information, I stated that I would consider it. After checking with my Employer, I determined that it would not be appropriate to release that information to you or any other news outlet. I am a commissioned agent in the life insurance industry and this information is considered confidential and my Employer frowns on such information being released, especially to the Public. You subsequently found this information in my Chapter 13, Re-organization Filing and then released it to the Public online stating, "So City Council At-Large Seat C candidate Ron Peabody chose not to disclose his tax returns to us, but that's ok, because we found his 2009 and 2010 gross income in another document...". I said no, and you did it anyway.Last week, you made a request to conduct a Candidate interview with me. I requested that I would prefer that a different reporter conduct the interview with me. You then informed me that only you and Jesse Mayshark, the Managing Editor of the Metro Pulse could conduct such an interview. In a follow up email you then stated that Mr. Mayshark would not conduct the interviews for the Seat C race because he has a Personal relationship with one of my opponents, Finbarr Saunders, which shows clear bias from your paper.Interestingly enough, on the same day this occurred, I received an email request from Mr. Mayshark, asking me and the other City Council candidates to respond to a set of questions that he said would be used to determine who the Metro Pulse would endorse for the election in your September 8th Edition. These two events seem to contradict each other and to me, raise several questions. Such as the real intent of you asking me one set of questions, and Mr. Mayshark asking me another set of questions.You then suggested that we could do the interview via email, and over the weekend, I agreed to do so. When I received your list of questions late Monday afternoon, I realized that neither you, nor the Metro Pulse had any intention of reporting on the issues of the race, and were only interested in attacking me personally. Therefore I will not be answering the questions you or Mr. Mayshark sent to me, nor will I respond to any requests for interviews or comments from the Metro Pulse for the foreseeable future.Sincerely,Ron PeabodyCandidateKnoxville City Council At Large Seat C865firstname.lastname@example.org
The next day, Jesse sent the following e-mail:From: Gervin, CariSent: Wednesday, August 03, 2011 9:41 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Interview QuestionsDear Mr. Peabody,Please feel free to sleep on this and change your mind tomorrow. The questions Jesse sent last week went out to every single candidate, all the same, not for this or any other story but for the paper's editorial staff to make endorsements later this month. The questions I sent you are a variation of the exact same thing I'm asking everyone and what I would have preferred to sit down and chat with you about over a cup of coffee. In this profile, I'm trying to present your candidacy in as balanced a fashion as possible, and it's hard to do that if you won't talk to me. This is the profile on the Seat A race from this week's issue, which should give you some idea of our intent:But just like your job is to sell insurance, my job is to ask questions. Sometimes those questions are uncomfortable ones. I am not singling you out. It's just what I do for a living. So please don't take it personally if I continue to try to get you to change your mind about this over the next day or so. There are people out there interested in knowing more about your candidacy, and I'd like to at least be able to tell them something.Sincerely,Cari Gervin
From: Mayshark, JesseSent: Thursday, August 04, 2011 1:13 PMTo: Ron PeabodySubject: Re: Metro Pulse interviewI've read the letter you sent Cari about her attempts to interview you, and I just want to clear up a few misconceptions. It is, of course, up to you whether you want to talk to us or any other media outlet. We will be writing about your candidacy and the Seat C race regardless of any input from you, because you are running for public office and it is a matter of public interest. But just to be clear:-- You raised concerns about Metro Pulse¹s disclosure of your personal financial information. That information was already a matter of public record before we ever wrote about it. It is not normal journalistic practice to seek permission from a political candidate to write about information that is already in the public record. And you are not the only City Council candidate whose bankruptcy filing we reported.-- You also raised concerns about a "personal relationship" between me and Finbarr Saunders. As I believe Cari told you, I am a casual acquaintance of Finbarr's. Specifically, he is very good friends with my ex-wife's uncle; they were in the Army together. I met him through those family connections years ago, before he ever ran for office, and I have run into him at a handful of social events since then. I know him well enough to say hi on the street, but that¹s it. But given even that slight level of familiarity, I thought it best for someone else to write about the Seat C race. And the reporter whom I asked to write it instead is the same one who wrote, after the June 30 forum, "Peabody knew the details of the pension plan, and, as its main opponent, he obviously knows the details of the Ten-Year Plan. He also stayed on topic when other candidates rambled." That does not strike me as the work of someone with some kind of bias against you. As for your request that some other reporter do the story: a.) we have a small staff, and Cari and I are the only ones covering these races; and b.) it is not normal journalistic practice to let political candidates choose their own interviewer.-- As for the "two sets of questions," one set is the questionnaire that we sent to all candidates. Its purpose is clearly explained in the note at the top: It will be used in our editorial endorsement deliberations, and it will also be posted online for everyone to see. It is separate from the race-by-race news stories we are doing. The reason that you also have a second set of questions is that you, alone of all the candidates we have contacted, insisted on getting interview questions in writing. We were under no obligation to provide those to you, and we very much prefer in-person interviews. But we decided to accommodate your request, in the interest of having as much information as possible for the article Cari is writing.Far from "attacking" you, I think we have gone out of our way to try to be fair to you. We have made allowances for you that we have made for no other candidate. If you still don¹t want to answer any questions from us, that is your right. And you are of course welcome to contact me or Cari with any other questions or concerns. But I think we have expended enough effort in trying to accommodate you. There are a lot of candidates this fall, and we can only spend so much time on each one.Regards,Jesse Mayshark
Peabody never responded to either of the last two e-mails Jesse and I sent. He did respond to an e-mail sent Monday and gave us permission to use his photo from his website in our story in this week's issue.