A local reporter asked a question to a U.S. Housing and Urban Development senior official that sparked a three-day Twitter war in late August between the Trump appointee and the journalist.
Molly Parker, a reporter for the Southern Illinoisian, has reported on the country’s public housing crisis locally and nationally since 2015. On August 21, she tweeted a question to Lynne Patton, the HUD Regional Administrator for New York and New Jersey, asking if HUD’s reform of its inspection system began in 2015, which would have predated Patton’s involvement.
Their subsequent exchange highlighted the contentious relationship journalists engage in reporting on federal agencies and showed how journalists use Twitter to ask questions to public officials who may not be accessible for comment in more traditional manners.
Before Patton was the regional administrator for New York and New Jersey, she worked as an aide to Eric Trump and was also a speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Most recently, she grabbed headlines when she posted a picture of an article from the Daily Mail reporting Jeffery Epstien’s suicide with the caption, “Hillary’d!!” She added the tag, “#VinceFosterPartTwo,” a reference to the lawyer in Bill Clinton’s administration who killed himself in 1993; his death was ruled a suicide, but conspiracy theories still emerged blaming the Clintons.
Earlier in the summer, Mark Meadows, a congressman from North Carolina, used Patton’s role as an aide with the Trump family to assert that Trump is not racist during the Micheal Cohen hearings. She also called White House reporter April Ryan “miss piggy,” on Twitter and has since apologized.
She has no past experience working in public housing, which is how the riff began. On her official HUD Twitter account Patton said she was honored to have a critical role in the creation of the Real Estate Assessment Center Task Force and Physical Inspection reform after an inspection of a failing property. Parker asked in a reply if REAC reform began in 2015, which would have predated Patton’s involvement. Patton then used her personal account to tweet a GIF and accused the reporter of trying to diminish her role in inspection reform.
According to an expanded statement offered by HUD, in August of 2017 Patton alerted Carson and senior staff at HUD’s headquarters of the inefficient inspection system after a multifamily property in Newark, New Jersey received passing inspection scores from REAC despite deplorable conditions.
In subsequent tweets, Parker provided a U.S. Government Accountability Office’s report showing HUD also began an internal review of REAC in 2016.
The late-night argument rolled over to the early morning of Aug. 22 when Patton responded to Parker’s tweet, which was an image of the U.S. GAO’s report outlining past reform recommendations.
Almost four years ago to the day the Twitter fight between Patton and Parker began, Parker had reported how some Cairo, Il. residents in housing run by the Alexander County Public Housing Authority were living in “third world” conditions while some employees and management of the local housing authority had collectively taken home hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars through payments, bonuses, consultant contracts, retirement incentives, and legal incentives along with regular pay.
This story launched a series by Parker that chronicled one community’s struggle to gain access to safe and clean public housing.
After a new administration took over HUD in 2016, Cairo was one of the first places of action when the agency took the local housing authority under its control.
A year later, HUD made the decision to shutter the McBride and Elmwood public housing units and relocate residents with vouchers that act as part of rent payment. In early 2018, 85 residents living in Thebe’s public housing, a neighboring town of about 360 people, were also informed by HUD that they would be relocated.
Parker told the Gateway Journalism Review that the effect this had on the residents and community varied. Not all the units were uninhabitable. Some families felt their units were not in as poor condition as others, Parker said.
For some, moving was not what they wanted; others saw being relocated provided a new start for families.
Cairo is at the bottom tip of Illinois. It’s an impoverished town in a struggling region. Historically, it has an important role being at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. When the majority of America’s trade was transported by the country’s river system and railroad, Cairo was in the middle of all the movement and culture.
In the Civil War, Cairo played an important role for stationing the union army and keeping an eye on the southern states which bordered the city.
After the war, Cairo was a destination for freed slaves. Some stayed in the city, others continued north. Those who stayed and their descendants were subject to racial discrimination and oppression. Violence rocked the city during the civil rights movement, leaving generational scars on the city of now, a couple thousand.
Those scars manifested in unfit living conditions, that were reported in the early 1970s by the late journalist Paul Good. His report included chipping paint, bad plumbing, rat and roach infestation, and cracked walls and ceilings that he found in segregated public housing.
Parker found in 2015 HUD had failed again to enforce fair housing laws as it had 45 years ago.
Parker received a ProPublica Local Reporting Grant in 2018 allowing her to travel around Illinois and outside the state to tell the story of America’s public housing crisis. Her reporting took her to New York City, East St. Louis, and Missouri to tell similar stories about HUD’s failed inspection system that has left thousands of Americans living in inhabitable and dangerous conditions.
Reporting on the housing crisis in Cairo was heartbreaking, Parker said.
“I am a reporter, so we try of course to be as objective as possible and to a degree that requires you to detach yourself,” Parker said. “But at the end of the day you’re human.”
As a southern Illinois native, Parker said she recognized some of the families and interviewed a lot of female head of households.
“A lot of the mothers were my age,” she said. “I recognized that we probably played sports against each other.”
Parker thinks about that a lot, she said. She started to ask herself tough questions.
“Why do some communities fare better than others? Why do some have resources and some don’t? Why are some of our communities segregated and lacking resources?” she said.
These problems are not unique to southern Illinois. But sometimes it’s easier to not recognize things for what they are – the modern effects of racism’s legacy, she said.
“All those things hit home for me,” Parker said.
By starting to report on the public housing crisis in Cairo, Parker was welcomed into the community by residents who reminded her to tell positive stories that are happening in Cairo like every other community.
In a tweet with images of past threads Parker tweeted her disapproval for Patton’s responses to her original question of when REAC reform was initiated. In a response to a Twitter reply, Parker called Patton’s responses “discouraging.”
In a statement emailed to GJR, Patton described the Twitter exchange with Parker as “a contentious debate about whether or not the current Administration has pursued more impactful reform as it pertains to REAC than the last Administration, which is partisan activity directly geared toward the success or failure of a specific political party.”
Patton noted that she had used her personal Twitter account to engage. In defense for responding to Parker’s questions with GIFs, Patton called the reporter unprofessional and said she had stalked her.
Reporters’ engagement with public officials hasn’t always been contentious.
Bill Lambrecht of Hearst Newspapers and San Antonio Express-News paid a lot of attention to HUD when Presidential candidate Julian Castro was then-secretary during 2014-2017.
From a long-term perspective, the agency has done a good job in Washington with being responsive, Lambrecht said.
In the most recent years under President Obama, reporters began to see a difference in how reporters were treated. But it was never to the extent it is today, Lambrecht said.
Federal agencies are in “political mode” in order to protect their bosses politically rather than serving the public, he said.
“What we’ve seen at HUD and other agencies is that the press person in government that once operated as press advocates are now in many cases in these exaggerated and adversarial relationships with news outlets,” he said.
Twitter is not a space for political discussion. It allows bits of information to skim the surface, if even that, Lambrecht said.
“They flow so swiftly that they allow little time before the next tweet,” he said.
As reporters are adapting to the changing media landscape that has come with social media, there must be a laser focus on the truth and keep some humility as they present stories, Lambrecht said.
Since the Internet’s birth Lambrecht said public information staff, who are supposed to work for the taxpayers and the media, have used the internet as a crutch. Countless times he said he’s been directed to an agency’s website looking for answers to find nothing that responds to his questions.
That vacuum of public information is why Parker’s and others’ reporting is essential, Lambrecht said.
“There is precious little focus on government agencies,” he said.
In Washington, Capitol Hill is filled with national journalists covering Congress.
“But so little of what congress does truly impacts peoples’ lives and their problems,” Lambrecht said. “Everyday there are, in HUD and other agencies, decisions made that have a big impact on people.”
Back in the day, before everyone carried their digital life in their palm, a reporter would reach out to an agency with their questions. If the questions were good, media relations would find an expert in the agency to answer the questions, Lambrecht said.
“We see less and less of that with this phony reliance on websites and efforts, for political reasons, to protect their bosses in the administration,” he said.
An example of the government’s difficult relationship with the press is when employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were threatened with losing their jobs when they tried to correct the record of where Hurricane Dorian was going to hit in early September, Lambrecht said.
“In matters as basic as weather we now see efforts at the federal level to dissemble or to mislead,” Lambrecht said. “Which is a little bit frightening when truth is a plungeable commodity.”
If and when government bosses misrepresent a fact through the internet, it’s important for reporters to not engage in a “cute back and forth” or insulting behavior that can be seen in officials and their staff.
“It’s incumbent upon journalists to present the truth as best they can and point out inaccuracies but do so in a straightforward way that doesn’t diminish the value of those truths,” Lambrecht said.
As journalists continue to work in a climate that has a diminished trust in the institution of journalism they must unremittingly seek the truth, he said.
“As best we can.”
Amelia Blakely reported from Carbondale, Illinois, where she is a student at Southern Illinois University. You can find her on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely.