Commentary

New Mexico reporter undaunted after being denied entry to campaign event

Journalism group calls exclusion a “troubling new low”

August 17, 2022 9:15 am

Source New Mexico reporter Shaun Griswold outside an Aug. 14 campaign event for gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti. (Source NM)

Source NM’s senior reporter pulled a piece of posterboard out of the trash outside a campaign event Sunday and hastily sharpied a sign that read:

Hello! My name is Shaun.

I AM A JOURNALIST

Why are you here?

What can the news do better?

Shaun Griswold’s inspired outreach is exactly what I meant when I wrote the word “scrappy” into our slogan. Never mind the barriers. We’ll get you the story — this time using actual scraps.

Griswold drove a few hours south to Carlsbad, N.M., to cover the first major campaign event for Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti, featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s a contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

Private security didn’t allow Griswold in. They had a photo of him at the gate. They asked if he was Shaun with Source New Mexico and turned him away. Even though big names in the Republican Party locally and nationally were set to talk through their platforms and would-be policies in a more remote corner of the country, the Ronchetti campaign ejected a reporter who works in service of the public.

It’s a tight grip on appearance and message. It’s retaliation for critical coverage. It’s an attempt at press intimidation (though Griswold and his mighty permanent marker will not be intimidated).

It’s not a good look for a candidate who aspires to a job that is rightfully an object of great public interest and scrutiny.

– Trip Jennings, New Mexico In Depth

Our task, in part, is to report on elections. It’s been hard to get Ronchetti’s camp to answer questions. The event seemed like a good opportunity to hear the candidate elaborate on his positions.

Saturday night, I got a message from Enrique Knell, campaign spokesperson, that we would not be issued press credentials “based on our past interactions.”

That’s a reference to a two-month-old article penned by longtime journalist Ryan Lowery — vetted, edited and still fully backed by me — “Ronchetti fails to denounce violent extremist groups.”

The campaign contacted Lowery after we published that story. I’d heard about it and had reached out to the campaign to discuss whether there was any info that should be corrected, clarified or updated, eventually determining that there wasn’t after some back and forth. We’d also offered to write a followup story if Ronchetti was willing to do an interview. No dice. The exchange, by my estimation, was professional and cordial.

I’ve had no other interaction with the campaign, so it’s safe to assume that was the issue.

All of this is to say that when private security bounced Griswold, who was using a normal, free event ticket, it was because of an article written a while back by another reporter, and because he works for an organization the campaign perceives as oppositional and critical.

Singling out and excluding reporters from simply watching you speak during quasi-public events — before even gaining office — is a troubling new low.

– Society of Professional Journalists, Rio Grande chapter

Scrutinizing governments, officials and candidates is a big part of being a journalist. Reporters at Source NM do this work every day regardless of political party or affiliation. It’s just the job.

Senior Reporter Shaun Griswold in Carlsbad, N.M., on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022.

Politicians of all people have got to be ready to answer challenging questions and thicker-skinned about criticism.

As Trip Jennings, executive director of New Mexico In Depth, wrote on Monday about Griswold’s ejection:

“It’s not a good look for a candidate who aspires to a job that is rightfully an object of great public interest and scrutiny. What does his campaign’s decision suggest about Ronchetti should he become governor and how he might handle journalists who have questions that might be dangerous to his political ambitions?”

We’ve peered pretty far down the dim path of press restrictions during the Trump administration. The former president blamed the media when he looked bad. He pulled national news organizations’ press credentials after critical coverage. And he’s not the only candidate to do this sort of thing.

Even though Ronchetti himself was once a member of the media as KRQE’s meteorologist, his camp is repeating the play. “Singling out and excluding reporters from simply watching you speak during quasi-public events — before even gaining office — is a troubling new low,” wrote the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter.

It’s a dangerous move, and it feels like a test of our limits. Will local news organizations let campaigns get away with this sort of thing?

Griswold was denied access as a journalist when Knell declined to provide his press pass, and he was denied as a member of the public when security kicked him out. Either way, it’s not cool, according to the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. The nonpartisan transparency organization tweeted in response to my thread about what happened:

“This could be setting a dangerous precedent — letting any prospective public servant decide who is and is not a ‘legitimate’ reporter. Reporters are the public’s eyes and ears. If they can be silenced by being denied access, the members of the public are the ultimate victims.”

And I’d argue all people should have access to campaign events, regardless of whether they completely agree with a candidate. NMFOG says so, too. “Discrimination in access on the basis of content or political orientation is illegal,” the organization posted.

Election cycles should be about voters weighing and debating ideas and policies before we head to the polls. Why would anyone have to prove their fealty to Ronchetti or DeSantis before being allowed in to hear them out? Remember, politicians work for you.

So do journalists. That’s the reason I’m writing about this. When we’re denied access, it’s harder to get information out to folks.

As the New Mexico Local News Fund said: “We call on all candidates to ensure equal access at campaign events for journalists and the public. Ultimately, it is the people of New Mexico who suffer when the press is denied the ability to carry out their constitutionally protected duties.”

Freedom of the press is one of the hallmarks of American democracy, and enshrined in the 1st amendment. However, a free press also relies on many norms, values and traditions that go beyond the law to keep democracy vibrant. 1/2 https://t.co/5RHl4PwJ4v

— NM Local News Fund (@NMLocalNews) August 15, 2022

In the end, it sounds like it may have been lucky, actually, that we didn’t get press credentials. With his handmade sign, Griswold was able to talk to voters outside the event, and he turned out a great story anyway.

In Algernon D’Ammassa’s article “Press under tight control as Ronchetti rallies in Carlsbad with DeSantis and Rep. Herrell” in the Las Cruces Sun-News, he wrote, “Credentialed press inside the event were discouraged from speaking with people in attendance or moving about the auditorium ahead of and during the event.”

It’s weird, he later tweeted. Why wouldn’t they want conservative voters’ voices in the articles?

See, this isn’t really about Griswold or Source. This is about the spirit and principles of democracy, the First Amendment and a free press. And that should be important to everyone — including politicians, journalists and the people they serve.

A huge shoutout to the many colleagues who’ve had our back in all of this. And many thanks to Jessica Onsurez, news director for the Carlsbad Current-Argus, Alamogordo Daily News and Ruidoso News for sharing her photos from inside the campaign event.

 

 

 

This commentary first appeared in Source New Mexico, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Arkansas Advocate, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Source New Mexico maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Marisa Demarco for questions: [email protected]. Follow Source New Mexico on Facebook and Twitter.

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Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.

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