Bach: up close and personal 

Between the Lines

Funny how we never forget some advice that people give us along the way. Like this from a wise college professor: Whether it's politics, work or dealing with everyday problems, he said, don't ever shoot every bullet in your gun. Save your ammunition.

Maybe you won't need it later. But you might.

That analogy came back to mind last week as I walked from the Independent to the City Administration Building, joining a handful of management peers from other media outlets for a meeting with Mayor Steve Bach.

This was not intended to be a battle, but everyone was prepared, just in case. After all, our many differences had led to this occasion. We in the media felt the mayor was trashing his promise for a transparent city government. Bach felt the media — in particular the Gazette and Independent — were being unfair to him and his administration, with sloppy stories and oversized open-records requests. It had culminated at the mayor's Feb. 14 press conference, a contentious ordeal filled with snippy comments and barbs. That led to my request for a meeting, though I wasn't sure whether anyone else would care to participate.

Bach agreed to meet, but he made it clear that he didn't plan on changing his approach to dealing with the media. We eventually set the date for March 8 — and started counting our bullets (actually arguing points), figuring we might need all of them.

But as soon became apparent after our gathering convened, Bach was no more interested in warfare than we were.

"I'm going to be 70 on my next birthday," Bach said. "I don't need this. I don't want the next three years to be like this first one."

The comment was both unexpected and encouraging. From that starting point, for the next 50 minutes, we talked through what felt like a negotiating session at times, and like a complaint session at others. But it was progress. We heard about specific mistakes and records requests that bothered the mayor. He heard what bothered the media — such as the lack of short-notice access, if only for a few quick questions on a breaking story.

Bach wanted to make certain points, and since this was in his conference room, he made them. But we had our points as well, even as we agreed with the mayor that we don't want every issue and story to create adversarial situations. For one thing, we noted that his monthly news conferences, while well-intended, don't compare to good, old-fashioned, one-on-one time, with carefully crafted questions that competitors can't hear, and the chance for back-and-forth answers and follow-ups. Not an ambush, but an honest exchange.

He wanted to be able to call us, though more in the context of pointing out possible mistakes or questioning open-records requests. All of us, representing three papers and three TV stations, instantly nodded and said, "Sure, no problem." And from that point, the mood improved.

We agreed that it would be much better for all involved — especially for his constituents — if the city and media could work with each other as much as possible, instead of constantly battling.

That won't mean a bunch of whitewash stories, by any means, and we'll still have our confrontations. We'll produce news and columns that stir frustration, and at times everyone will be mad.

But, as we learned, it's not like Bach is thin-skinned. That very day, hours before the meeting, our most recent Independent hit the streets with two critical columns about the city. Rich Tosches took aim at the Mayor's Cup golf tournament, and I chastised Bach himself for an idea that failed 12 years earlier, trying to consolidate all homeless services and shelters in one location away from downtown.

Bach could have challenged either of those columns. Instead, he focused elsewhere.

Our meeting ended with cordial words and handshakes, and the mayor saying he would consider some ideas. That's fair. We haven't heard anything since, but there was no timetable. He hasn't shot anything down, either.

Whatever that outcome, we're in a better place now. He's willing to listen to us, and we're willing to listen to him.

Without counting our bullets first.



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