Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s Press Secretary Chris Song attacked the character of the reporter who broke the story about keeping information about COVID-19 cases secret during a press conference Thursday.
As Ferrier reported, the email discussion “involves the low number of coronavirus cases emerging from bars and restaurants and how to handle that.”
“And, most disturbingly, how to keep it from the public,” Ferrier reported.
Cooper is the defendant in a legal complaint brought by a local bar own for violating constitutional rights related to COVID-19. The plaintiff maintains that from the very first orders, bars and restaurants were consistently treated differently than other businesses, particularly those located on Broadway.
Over the course of several emails, the low number of only about 80 COVID-19 cases associated with bars was discussed as was the point that the information was going to stay within the mayor’s office and not released publicly.
When Ferrier asked both the mayor’s office and the health department to confirm the authenticity of the emails, he was told to file a freedom of information act request.
Ferrier went on to get verification of the authenticity from a staff attorney.
During the mayor’s press conference Thursday, Ferrier addressed the issue.
Emails released between the mayor’s office and the health department suggest at least, at least a reluctance to share COVID-19 numbers that don’t support policy. To paraphrase, ‘we don’t want to release those numbers because they are low.’ We’re talking about bars and restaurants. And, if you do say this out of context, we did ask for context yesterday and were told not just no comment but FOIA us. And that doesn’t really feel like a ‘we’re all in this together’ comment. It’s adversarial. And, don’t you think that the bar and restaurant owners, some who are going out of business every week deserve to know that there were around 80 cases? Shouldn’t that be widespread disseminated by the office? We talked about sharing good news. That was pretty good news.
After the perfunctory thanking of Ferrier for his question, Song avoided eye contact with Ferrier by looking down as he responded without answering the question.
As I talked to your production team yesterday, when you asked for comment, you sent over nine screen shots of documents that you had asked me to verify. I told your production team that that needed to go through the proper channels, which is a public records request, because that’s what needs to be done, to go through line by line and make sure that those documents were verified the right way. I wasn’t putting your team off. That is something that our office cannot do. That’s something that needs to go through the Metro Clerk’s office. I would have done that with any request of that nature. When you asked for comment, there was absolutely no context for the comment that you requested. It was nine screenshots and asking for comment.
Song then expressed that he would have provided a comment, if asked again.
“After you formulated your story, it would have been nice to have an opportunity for the mayor’s office to participate in that story.”
After defending his actions, Song then went into attack mode against Ferrier.
“I think it was a lapse in journalistic judgement and due diligence.”
Dismissively, Song then turned to walk away as he said, “In terms of your question, I’m going to let Dr. Jahangir participate in responding first …”
As Song turned away, Ferrier responded, “Let me add, since you made a character comment,” before he was interrupted by Song coming back to the microphone.
“No, since you asked a question,” responded Song, “I’m going to let Dr.” as Ferrier then continued.
“Since you made a character comment, I’d like to make one about you. When you call after the newscast and say, ‘Gee, we wish you would have asked again,’ I mean, this isn’t high school. You’re not asking a girl out on a date.”
Song then walked back to the podium.
Ferrier continued, “If you don’t have a comment up front, we don’t have to come and ask you again an hour later. We have deadlines and I’m asking you now. So here’s a chance to answer.”
Song, obviously agitated, responded, “No, no, no. You had a deadline and you asked a question”
At that point, Ferrier finished, saying “And you didn’t answer, you said ‘FOIA,’ sir,” before being rudely interrupted by Song.
“You’re not listening. I just responded to your question. You asked me for a comment, without context. You asked me to verify documents.”
Song went on to explain that he told Ferrier’s assignment editor that he could not do that and he gave her the proper channels in which to do that.
“She went through another channel, did not notify me that she had done that and you ran your story.”
Ferrier confirmed that by responding, “Absolutely.”
Song, still defending his position, continued to go after Ferrier, “Without coming back to ask me for comment, you said…”
Circling back to the start when he initially asked for comment, Ferrier pointed out, “We’re asking you now.”
“We ran the story. We asked you before and we’re asking you afterwards. It’s so funny that a Metro staff attorney validated these emails in one hour that you told us to FOIA.”
At that point, Song seemed like he was retreating, but instead made his point again.
“Okay, you know what, that’s fine. But, what you should have done was to come back, tell me that you had validated those emails in whatever way that you did.”
Reiterating what happened, Ferrier told Song, “Because you told us to FOIA, sir. You said go through legal channels to extract this information.”
While Song looked like he was trying to say something, Ferrier got to the heart of the matter.
“Because you don’t want to share it.”
Ferrier also addressed Song’s unprofessionalism in attacking him and keeping the information secret.
“You’re not going to talk to me like this and walk away. I’ll talk to you in the same tone. This is America and the people have a right to know.”
Song managed to spit out a hostile, “Excuse me.”
Ferrier started on the line of questioning, by saying “The real co,” before he again addressed Song’s demeanor, “Don’t shake your head.”
Song responded, “Okay,” but as Ferrier tried to return to the topic by saying “because people are wondering,” Song went back to defending himself.
“This is what I told your producer was the proper way to do it. So, I’m going to let Dr. Jahangir now answer your question,” and turning to walk away he concluded with a curt, “Thank you.”
Rather than Dr. Alex Jahangir, Chairman of the Metro Board of Health, coming to the podium to answer Ferrier’s question, mask-donned Cooper appeared.
He told Ferrier, “Thank you Dennis. Come see me. We’ll get to the bottom of this. I do want some of our distinguished guests to be able to finish the press conference.”
Ferrier politely agreed by saying, “Of course.”
Chris Song released a statement Thursday on transparency and timely release of community COVID-19 data, which can be read here.
Mayor John Cooper holds news conference on public health
Posted by Mayor John Cooper on Thursday, September 17, 2020
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.