Emails Show Ugly, Anti-Press Side of NJ’s Aspiring Mayor and Governor

Let’s talk about politicians who hate the press.

We hear a lot about officials “taking a page out of Trump’s playbook” when attacking the media, but they’ve been doing it forever. From Thomas Jefferson instructing state attorneys general to sue hostile editors to Joe Biden calling a Fox News reporter a stupid SOB, politicians think ill of reporters who write stories they don’t like. Trump did not invent this game.

And it’s not just presidents! Most reporters I know have a story or two (or a dozen) about a public servant who has been the subject of aggressive reporting or unflattering media coverage and sees the reporter behind the story as the enemy. . Eric Adams in New York is acting like reporters are committing treason by asking him off-topic questions at press conferences.

Which brings me to Steve Fulop, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City and potential gubernatorial candidate in 2025. I’ve covered Fulop for years, so I know firsthand what happens when he and his service of press think a journalist is hurting their brand.

Aaron Morrill too. Morrill is a Jersey City attorney and business owner who publishes and edits the hyperlocal site The Jersey City Hours. Morrill is now on Fulop’s very long list of enemies because the Jersey City Times isn’t friendly enough.

Morrill’s outlet was initially well received by the Fulop administration, whose spokeswoman told Morrill that the site’s journalists “are fantastic to work with” a few months after its launch in October 2019.

But since then, Fulop has privately called the site “yellow journalism”, called Morrill and the site’s associate editor “as big a pirate as you can get”, and claimed the site was “a political tool to hurt me and “not a legitimate site. news source.” His administration shut down the city’s press advisory site and stopped communicating with the Jersey City Times when it had questions for stories.

How can I know? Enter Jennifer Borg. Borg, a lawyer whose family once owned the Bergen Record and a host of community newspapers in North Jersey, is a guest lecturer at Yale University’s Media Freedom and Access to Information Clinic. This is where attorneys like Borg can provide law students with hands-on legal experience.

Borg and his students filed public records requests for emails that Fulop administration officials exchanged with and about the Jersey City Times, and, after obtaining them, they alleged that the e emails showed the city retaliated against the Jersey City Times, violating the First Amendment and the site. right to due process and equal access.

(Borg also represented the New Jersey Monitor in a legal case.)

An email from Fulop to his spokeswoman offering a statement in response to a Jersey City Times article that painted an unflattering picture of the mayor’s handling of crime.

‘Friendly?’

Morrill has a good idea of ​​what led the Fulop administration to back down from working with his outlet: harsh coverage of Fulop’s crime record.

In May 2021, Morrill published an article detailing how Fulop’s public boasting of the crime under his watch does not match statistics from his own police department, which show otherwise. read the story. It’s tough but fair, and full of FBI numbers. It’s hardly a success and may be harder on the media than on Fulop.

The Fulop administration did not respond to Morrill’s questions before publishing the story and, according to Morrill, blacklisted the site after it went live.

When a reporter from another outlet asked Fulop spokeswoman Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione to comment on the Jersey City Times crime story, her draft response attacked the site for a “misinformation campaign unethical,” while Fulop added that the site had “constantly distorted information.” “What was wrong with the cover of the site? They don’t say. Morrill said the Fulop administration never pointed out an error in the crime story, or asked for a correction.

Borg and his team unearthed an illuminating email exchange from June 2021, when the representative of a company that ultimately won a nearly million dollar contract with Jersey City told the Fulop administration that a Jersey City Times reporter had asked him about the deal. The company representative asked a city official if the reporter was “friendly”.

“We don’t engage with the JC Times at all,” Wallace-Scalcione told him. “This is a completely biased (sic) blog with very little readership and not real media.”

How about that? A contractor winning nearly $1 million in public funds for a highly touted municipal effort, and before a company official told a reporter about it, he wanted to know if the reporter was “friendly.” And the city’s response was, no, ignore them.

I asked the Fulop administration if they wanted to comment. Wallace-Scalcione Did not respond.

I spoke to Stephen Stich, another lecturer at Yale’s Media Freedom Clinic — and a local journalism fellow — who worked with Borg to supervise students.

“What is really anomalous about this case is that we have found what appears to be a very clear causal link between the story of the Jersey City Times and the removal of the Jersey City Times from the press mailing list. “, he told me. “It was clearly done because they didn’t like the perspective of the Jersey City Times reporting. And that’s unusual.

For now, the Jersey City Times may be back on the city’s press mailing list (nothing like a threatening email from a smart lawyer to scare someone into he does the right thing!). As to whether the city will end its stupid policy of ignoring questions from site reporters, we’ll see.

Hopefully the wise heads prevail at Jersey City Town Hall. Fulop may hate the coverage of the Jersey City Times and think Morrill is a one-sided hack who hates him, but that doesn’t change the fact that the site provides legitimate information about the city of Fulop. The First Amendment protects the press. It doesn’t just protect the press that makes Steve Fulop look good.

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