WKRG viewers Monday night caught a top story saying Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson was sponsoring an ordinance that would “decriminalize” second-degree marijuana possession, as well as a number of other minor offenses.
By Tuesday morning the mayor’s campaign had issued a press release criticizing the station’s coverage of the proposal and essentially labeling it an attempt to gain viewers and web clicks at the cost of accuracy.
“Yesterday afternoon, WKRG ran a misleading headline suggesting Mayor Stimpson was seeking to ‘decriminalize’ marijuana. It’s disappointing that WKRG is more concerned with producing click-bait than accurate news,” the press release read.
The ordinance would still leave simple marijuana possession, public lewdness and a fistful of other “minor” offenses as illegal offenses, but it would give officers the discretion to determine whether an arrest is warranted or if the matter could be handled through a citation. The matter went before the City Council Tuesday morning and was tabled for further consideration.
Stimpson Campaign Manager Candace Cooksey had more to say about WKRG’s coverage Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s just half-baked journalism — a sad example for reporting from an outlet that has a bigger responsibility to its viewers. When a station spends time writing sensationalist, click-bait headlines instead of doing due diligence on a story, it’s the public who suffers,” she said.
The reaction from Stimpson’s campaign was uncharacteristically strong, especially for a mayor who has enjoyed overwhelmingly positive press coverage. Even Council President Gina Gregory, a former WKRG reporter, joined in and publicly chided inaccurate coverage at Tuesday’s public meeting, although she did not mention a news source by name.
WKRG News Director Chris Best did not respond to emailed questions about the matter prior to press time, but the station’s website still carried an article Tuesday afternoon claiming the ordinance “would decriminalize several minor offenses.”
An email sent to WKRG employees Tuesday morning by Best and provided to Lagniappe by an insider suggested the mayor’s complaints had been heard to some degree, even if there is disagreement about the word usage.
“Please don’t say ‘the mayor says he wants to decriminalize.’ He adamantly says it’s not decriminalization. We can call it that because that’s what it is. But wording it this way is unfair,” Best wrote at 7:05 a.m. in a message with the subject line “Pot.”
While several dictionary definitions of “decriminalize” say the word means to make something that was illegal no longer so, there are also instances available of a more casual usage of the word suggesting criminal penalties had been lessened for certain offenses. The Stimpson campaign’s press release, however, claims “the penalties would be no less severe under this ordinance.”
Stimpson insiders also took issue with a photo of the mayor’s head next to a large pot leaf that was used in WKRG’s story.
While the mayor’s campaign directly took on WKRG, the city’s other TV news stations also declared the ordinance a “decriminalization” of marijuana. A search Tuesday afternoon showed Local15 had an article headlined “Mobile Mayor to introduce ordinance decriminalizing marijuana.” The linked story, however, had been removed.
Fox10 still featured an article Tuesday afternoon under the headline “Mobile mayor proposes decriminalization of minor offenses.”