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ProJo v. Cicilline

Fascinating to watch the tone of the Providence Journal's coverage of the Providence fiscal crisis the last couple of days - and in particular its gloves-off treatment of former Providence Mayor-turned-Congressman David Cicilline, who is taking a beating over his past handling of city finances.

There were a couple of tough-minded pieces in yesterday's paper - one that had several officials essentially alleging a cover-up. And today the paper ran a brief, front-page interview with Cicilline that highlighted the Congressman's evasiveness in answering questions about city finances.

Most interesting, perhaps, was the ProJo's decision to publish an email exchange between the paper's Providence reporter Alisha Pina and Cicilline's press secretary Jessica Kershaw.

Bu if the piece is noteworthy because of what it says about the ProJo's tough approach to the question - it, too, was meant to suggest that the Congressman was avoiding difficult questions - the exchange is also compelling because it provided the public with a rare glimpse into the fraught relationship between reporter and spokesperson; a relationship that can have a real impact on what is reported and how.

The relationsip is part public and part private, shot through with questions of trust, sometimes friendly and sometimes combative, subject to a strained politeness, and shaped by the invisible hand of people not directly involved in the conversation - editors and politicians.

All of that is evident, in some form or another, in what the ProJo published:

From: Pina, Alisha

To: Kershaw, Jessica

Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 10:19 AM

I hope you received the press release I forwarded to you earlier today and I look forward to hearing from the congressman today before 5 p.m. I would love to interview him early, if possible, because I have been on today since 6 a.m. and would like to have a rough draft for my editors by 4 p.m. To help facilitate an early response, I can give you questions in advance and maybe he, or you on his behalf, could just answer them. Let me know which avenue works best.


From: Kershaw, Jessica

To: Pina, Alisha

Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 1:05 PM

Hi Alisha

I just tried giving you a call a couple times and I’m getting an error message on the line — telling me that your number is a non-working number!

In any case, I want to get back to you on this request.

Look, as you know, considering your short blog post this morning, there is very little to comment on with the information released this morning. In addition, the information came by way of media advisory rather than a fuller document and I think we need to know more than what is there in order to comment.

That said, I’ll have a statement for you tomorrow when we know more details.

I hope you understand, and I think you do, given how short your post was, that we really need to have more details for comment.

Thank you for understanding and can you let me know your correct number again? I have 401-277-7456. Is that not right?


From: Pina, Alisha

To: Kershaw, Jessica

Sent: Wed Mar 02 13:32:53 2011

I would still like to talk to the Congressman today because we have multiple stories for tomorrow, one of which is how did it get so bad? What did the mayor know and when; what did he do to address the looming budget crisis?

Cicilline, as the mayor for 8 years, is key to that article. He still has responsibility to the taxpayers to explain. “No comment” until more detail is released is not an acceptable response. He continues to say he balanced budgets for all of his eight years as mayor. Clearly, that is not accurate.

Chances are very good that we will want to talk to him again tomorrow, or in the coming days, as this huge story for Rhode Island plays out.

There are many who believe he focused more on the campaign than on the city’s finances in his later months. He should respond to that criticism.

Does he believe his accountability as mayor stopped the day he entered Congress? What is his perspective and recommendation as a resident and taxpayer of Providence?

This is a conversation best handled in a give-and-take over the phone; not via e-mail. But, if it helps, some of the specific questions are below.

Alisha’s questions for Congressman Cicilline:

Providence had a $57-million deficit last year, according to the independent auditor.

It says this year’s structural deficit will be $70 million. Of that, Mayor Taveras has to find $29 million of cuts or revenues before June 30.

How did this happen?

Even with the loss of $30-plus million in state aid, the city under your administration clearly overspent. Were you aware of this and what specifically did you do to cut costs?

In one fiscal year, your administration also reduced the city’s reserve account from $17.36 million in July 2009 to $3.46 million by June 2010. You said at the time the money would be replenished with revenue. Why wasn’t it?


From: Kershaw, Jessica To: Pina, Alisha

Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 2:02 PM

Alisha - Let me get back in touch with you on the correct phone number now that I have it, as soon as I can.

From: Pina, Alisha To: Kershaw, Jessica

Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 5:35 PM

I am still here working on my story for the next hour or more, so you still have time to share a comment or two. The piece that I referred to in an earlier e-mail includes multiple quotes from city officials who state Cicilline and his administration lied to the taxpayers and council regarding the city’s finances. Some also say he put his campaign ahead of his job.

Alisha A. Pina


From: Kershaw, Jessica

To: Pina, Alisha

Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 5:49 PM


Thank you for your patience today. Below is a statement, direct from Congressman Cicilline, that you can use. This is what I can provide to you at this time. Please attribute this to him:

“There is no question that cities and towns all across Rhode Island, states around the country, and our federal government are all facing incredibly difficult budget decisions. Providence is facing these same challenges as a result of a $40 million reduction in state aid, the loss of federal education stimulus funds, the loss of revenues due to the troubled economy and a large pension liability. I have every confidence that Mayor Taveras and the Providence City Council will make decisions that they believe are in the best interest of the city as they work out these difficult budget issues. I will be fighting hard in Washington to help cities and towns in Rhode Island in any way I can.”

U.S. Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI)

Thank you again for your patience and persistence!


A related aside: I suggested in this space yesterday that Cicilline would survive the present train wreck. I still believe that, but one has to wonder as the plot thickens; how persistent the ProJo remains will play a role in his political fortunes; the unexpected resignation of Col. Brendan Doherty - and his possible Congressional candidacy - also adds to the intrigue. Stay tuned.


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