These days, the “Government Watchdog” seems to be doing more whimpering than barking, and all because Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton won’t give him an interview.

In recent days, Mike Matthews has petulantly used WREG-TV’s prime air time to fulminate over the fact that the mayor talked to the New York Times rather than to him. Incredibly, these rants apparently meet the station’s definition of news.

All in all, it reminds me of a favorite copy editor who screamed for a reporter to come to the city desk after the editor struck a sentence in the reporter’s copy that said that the mayor wouldn’t give him a comment.

It’s Not About You

The editor screamed: “Why do you think the public cares that you can’t do your job? You’re the reporter. Go get the news and quit giving excuses to readers. They don’t care if the mayor doesn’t like you and won’t return your calls.”

It seems a revolutionary idea in today’s world of modern electronic journalism, but the editor wasn’t through. “Just remember,” he said. “You’re not the news. No one cares if you’re having a hard time doing your job. Quit working yourself into your stories. This isn’t about you.”

That seems a completely alien thought in light of the mixture of journalism and entertainment that frequently passes for the nightly news. Often, it appears that some reporters like the watchdog see the news as a reality show in which they are starring.

Dogging It

Perhaps, this brand of magnified self-aggrandizement is responsible for the latest diatribe about Mayor Herenton’s decision to give the New York Times an interview.

Mr. Matthews told his viewers: “The trouble is recently Willie Herenton has been more accessible to reporters from New York as opposed to reporters from Memphis, refusing to stop and even listen to questions that we wanted to ask about this case.”

In yet another report on his inability to get an interview, he essentially delivered an editorial. “His face was set in a frozen smile,” he intoned. “But Willie Herenton wasn’t happy. He had a group of reporters in front of him ready to ask questions about several issues, but the mayor of Memphis wasn’t in the mood to talk. What he saw were people that were in his way.”

Reading Minds

After basing the first paragraph largely on his mind-reading abilities, the watchdog continued his editorial with a litany of personal grievances, including the mayor’s office’s failure to issue a schedule of events, the lack of easy access to the mayor’s floor in City Hall, the fact that there’s only been one press availability since Mayor Herenton announced the possibility of his resignation to become superintendent, and Mayor Herenton’s failure to comment on the stripper blackmail investigation.

We’re sure that we were supposed to be enraged by the watchdog’s “on your side” reporting, but our only reaction was to shrug. After all, elected officials don’t have an absolute obligation to talk to the reporters, or to every reporter. Instead, they have the right to decide how, when and with whom they want to communicate with the public.

It seems to us that in an environment where leaks are as common as public meetings, a reporter worth his salt could find out what’s going on with or without Mayor Herenton’s help. In other words, it’s all about cultivating sources.

Counter Point

Meanwhile, on the subject of the media and the watchdog, Mayor Herenton offered this perspective:

“I have very little tolerance for games. The media should be professional and present the news in a reliable, unbiased way. I said, ‘Mike, I have no comment,’ and I was smiling. But if you’re in your living room, you hear that the mayor is hostile. He deliberately did that. You probably thought, “There goes Willie Herenton again.

“There has been such a deterioration of objectivity in the media. There are reporters like (Memphis Daily News reporter) Bill Dries who are professional. He’s going to be factual. He’s not going to editorialize. I have some media people who don’t like me. I don’t mind that, but they have the obligation to be accurate.”

We’ve written often about the mayor’s irascibility, but on this particular coverage, it’s hard to argue with him.