Jerry Berger, for good or for ill, is probably our town's most widely read journalist. That's part of why Mayor Clarence Harmon is in a snit.
The mayor thinks a former campaign consultant for his '97 campaign -- a man Harmon got rid of for what he calls "unethical conduct" -- has a vendetta against him and has been writing derogatory items for Berger's Post-Dispatch column in an effort to sabotage the mayor's administration and his current re-election campaign. Harmon claims Richard Callow, a prominent political and public-relations consultant, has been "ghostwriting" Berger's column, at least the parts that include catty items about Harmon.
These are not happy days for Harmon. The man who was the city's first African-American police chief has a good chance of becoming the city's second one-term African-American mayor. He doesn't think he's been treated fairly in the process, and he lays much of the blame on the daily paper of record, the Post.
None of that seems startling -- incumbent mayors struggling for re-election like to bash the local paper, no matter how energetic or lazy that paper is. But Berger has been hounding Harmon, and the paper seems to have done its usual let's-start-reporting-on-City-Hall-now-that-the-mayor's-race-is-on drill, similar to four years ago, when negative pieces on Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.'s administration surfaced. Harmon also points to $1,125 contributions by Pulitzer Inc. chairman Michael Pulitzer and wife Ceil to Francis G. Slay's mayoral bid as evidence of the Post-Dispatch slant toward Slay ["Short Cuts," RFT, July 26]. The Post, Pulitzer's flagship paper, has yet to report those campaign contributions.
"Berger says he's going to run me out of town," Harmon says. The mayor has also made his feelings known to the Post editorial board: "We told the Post we know that Callow writes [Ber-ger's] articles. They looked at us like it was irrelevant and unimportant. We said, 'Look, guys, would you give us one for at least being suspicious? Your owners have given to Mr. Slay. You've got a guy from my former campaign who's ghostwriting a gossip column which I'm in three or four times a week. Would you give us one for being a little suspicious here that you're biased?'"
Harmon feels the fix is in at 900 N. Tucker Blvd.: "My feeling is, the Post has decided who the next mayor should be. And, in their infinite wisdom, they are oblivious to what the citizens may want to see; they have decided they will decide that for us. They're working up, surely, to endorse Slay. They've deigned him to be the next mayor."
These observations were made by the incumbent mayor before the release of Sunday's Post-KMOV-Zogby poll numbers, which have the weird combination of a 51 percent favorable rating for Harmon but just 6 percent of the people saying they will vote for him. There's something stinky about that dichotomy, but however you explain away the poll, it's clear that Harmon is in third place in a three-way race, with Slay at 46 percent and Bosley at 27 percent. Most of the remaining 21 percent were undecided, according to the poll.
With such meager numbers, it's understandable that Harmon might be developing a bunker mentality. It's even gotten to the point that Harmon brings up the subject of race when asked why people think he doesn't work hard enough. "I resolved that the next time I was asked that, I was going to ask the reporter, 'Would you have asked me that if I were a white mayor?'" Harmon says.
Berger and Callow both deny any plot to dethrone the mayor.
"I've been writing a column under four mayors, including Harmon," says Berger. "Frankly, no mayor has occasioned more different tips from more different people than has Harmon. He's out of step with the job he holds. It suggests he can't get through an entire day without putting his foot in the wrong place."
As for Callow's being a conduit for Berger items, the Bergermeister says he doesn't talk about his sources. "I got a million of 'em," says Jerry.
Harmon says he fired Callow "for unethical conduct -- he told me he was working for Bosley and me at the same time. You know what kind of guy he is. He tells me that. I tell him he's fired. He's made a crusade of this. He writes parts of Jerry Berger's column."
Callow admits doing volunteer work for Harmon's campaign during the summer of '96 but denies being fired by Harmon. He denies working for Bosley. Callow was a donor and fundraiser for Harmon in '97, but this time around he got an early seat on the Slay bandwagon.
There is no disputing that Callow is a player; he has been hired by business types as a male Sacajawea to lead them through the unexplored territory known as City Hall. His Public Eye Inc. has been in the mix for the new convention hotel, the proposed baseball stadium and the new city-jail project. Others with a less kindly take on his role have described him as the "Donald Segretti of St. Louis," referring to the Watergate dirty trickster. One of the City Hall cognoscenti compared the Berger-Callow relationship to the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, in which Burt Lancaster plays powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a pushy press agent, though the comparison is conceptual, not literal.
That Callow writes items that appear verbatim in Berger's column just ain't so, Callow says. "Virvus Jones ghostwrites the 'Political Eye' column in the [St. Louis] American. That's ghostwriting, when you write the column and it says 'Mark Wilson' wrote this." He says the fact that Harmon believes Callow ghostwrites for Berger "shows, if possible, that Clarence knows less about public relations and publishing than he does about being a mayor."
One thing Harmon is certainly correct about is that seldom is heard an encouraging word about Harmon in Bergers column. A recent example of the nitpicky warfare was Berger's take on naming the city's new courthouse after the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. Last Friday, after an odd boldface lead-in of "WELL MEL," Berger stated that Slay had plans to name the courthouse after Carnahan. No mention was made that Harmon's office had been in contact with the Carnahan family about that topic since early January and on Jan. 25 sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan. That afternoon, a press conference took place with Harmon announcing his plans to name the courthouse after Carnahan.
On Sunday, Berger followed with "nice ideas, it seems, are contagious," implying that Harmon took the idea of putting Carnahan's name on the courthouse from Berger's mention of Slay's plans in Friday's column. When asked about these two items, Berger responds: "I'm not privy to that [Harmon] letter. All I know is, I wrote a timely item on Slay's plan to name the building for Carnahan. I didn't know anything about Harmon."
This may all seem like too much protestation about picayune postings, but a constant parade of such items in the best-read space of the daily casts the mayor as an inept, out-to-lunch doofus. Harmon's "the Post is out to get me" theory weakens when it comes to other coverage.
The mayor is perturbed over the coverage of the City Living Foundation fiasco, in which close to $300,000 in city funds was given to a nonprofit corporation to promote living in the city but not so much as an advertising campaign was developed. The board was disbanded by Harmon in July 2000, but it took the Post until Jan. 7 of this year to run a page-one, lead-story account by Carolyn Tuft that dissected the corporate corpse. Harmon was suspicious of the timing, suggesting the story was published close to the election in an effort to hurt his chances.
To that, Tuft says, well, "bullshit" and calls Harmon a "whiner." The story was written and ready before Christmas and New Year's, she says, but was held by editors until after the holidays. Tuft says she only did the piece because she had covered an aldermanic hearing on the foundation in October, when she filled in for City Hall reporter Mark Schlinkmann. Some of the principals involved in that story complained to her about the piece, prompting her to work on a follow-up.
Tuft, who also wrote the Midnite Basketball and cell-phone articles during the final hours of the Bosley regime, calls Harmon's charges of Post bias "disingenuous." She is also weary of being blamed for the political demise of two mayors, both of whom happen to be black. Tuft took over the City Hall beat more than a year before Bosley left office.
"When I went to City Hall, as soon as I walked in the door, stories came flying at me. People were so fed up with what was going on there," says Tuft, who took a lot of heat from Bosley backers. "People back then said I was working for Harmon. I didn't know Harmon. Now they say I'm working for Slay. It's ridiculous. I'm just doing my job."
What seems even more baffling to Tuft is Harmon's newfound sympathy for Bosley, with Harmon going so far as to say the mayor he replaced was not treated fairly by the Post. "That's bullshit. Harmon and his wife were calling me all the time back then with stuff on Bosley, and hardly any of it panned out," Tuft says. "That's so disingenuous."
Harmonious has decided the Post's coverage four years ago of his former opponent was unfair.
Harmon, who defeated Bosley in a bitter and racially divisive campaign in 1997, thinks the Post did not treat Bosley fairly when it covered the cell-phone mess and the disappearance of funds from the Midnite Basketball program.
"When this was happening to Freeman, I sort of looked at it, I was watchful of it, but it benefited me. Now I'm the recipient of it, and I see how unbalanced it is," says Harmon, referring to how the Post covered, or didn't cover, City Hall during the Bosley term. "If you remember what happened to Freeman, they didn't report evenhandedly on him. They didn't report on him for three years, and when they finally did, it looked like, and felt like, overkill because of the way they had done their coverage."
Harmon isn't the first media critic to say that the Post at the start of Bosley's term proceeded carefully in its coverage of the city's first African-American mayor but stepped things up during his final year. Whether that was solely a result of Tuft's taking over, the usual bubbling to the surface of stories that happens during an election cycle, or sunspot activity is hard to say.
Whatever the chain of events, the result is familiar -- a mayor complaining about negative press and a largely unexamined newcomer about to take over Room 200. In 2005, what will St. Francis be whining about?