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Home / Articles / News / Opinion /  Power and the Press
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Minesh Bacrania

Power and the Press

Public servants shouldn’t get to hand out interviews like prizes

August 20, 2013, 12:00 am

Behind the curtain of almost every news story is a secret dance. In the process of understanding an issue, reporters must find people willing to talk; it’s those people whose voices and perspectives bring the hard facts of a story to life. Along the way, we strive to be fair to our sources. Lately, it’s hard to be fair to many people within the Martinez administration.

That’s because they don’t talk to reporters. Or rather, they don’t talk to reporters they don’t like.

Earlier this year, I reported that the New Mexico Environment Department was revamping a rule that protects groundwater from being polluted by copper mines [cover story, May 14: “The Canary in the Copper Mine (is Dead)”]. The story was based upon hundreds of pages of testimony, legal records and public documents—including emails and contracts obtained under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). I made calls to the Office of the Attorney General; two different law groups; the Water Quality Control Commission; state and federal agencies; current and former NMED employees; the New Mexico Mining Association; Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc.; a former contractor; and the public relations firm hired to promote the rule change.

People from each of those organizations and agencies responded to my requests—save for NMED. As it must under state law, the department complied with my IPRA requests. But the public information officer (PIO) never returned my voicemails or emails.

As I was putting the finishing touches on the story in early May, I broke protocol and directly emailed general-counsel-turned-Cabinet-Secretary-designate Ryan Flynn. Even then, I received no response, and the story ran without comment from NMED. Following publication, neither SFR nor I received complaints about errors or inaccuracies. Then, in June, I emailed the PIO again after learning reporters were being invited to a “meet and greet” with Flynn. Again, crickets.

In July, I finally got the opportunity to meet Flynn at a press conference in Santa Fe. I hoped we could talk about the copper rule, recent staffing changes at NMED and his vision for the department. After the press conference, I walked with him through the farmers market, trying to keep pace past the stalls of veggies and crafts.

Flynn refused comment—though he did say, “I think it would be great to ask questions, to talk to people, before publishing false information about them”—and told me to talk to the PIO. I returned to the press conference and again requested an interview; I even agreed to email them ahead of time with some themes for discussion.

Nothing.

I waited eight days and resent my message to the PIO and to Flynn. This time, Flynn responded, saying he would be happy to meet. Going forward, however, he requested I work with the PIO, Jim Winchester. “He is the public information officer and handles our inquiries from the media,” he wrote.

More waiting. More silence.  

Attempts to alienate reporters are not unique to the Martinez administration or Republicans. Control of the press involves power, not political parties. Gov. Bill Richardson’s staff—some of whom were former reporters themselves—also worked to thwart negative media attention and frame coverage of the governor.

During the Richardson administration, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining and was duking it out with the feds and New Mexico over jurisdiction. Richardson was quiet on the issue; his press handlers were, too.

Seeking his position, I stood in line at a book signing. Hugely pregnant, I made it up to the governor, handed him my copy of Between Worlds: The Making of An American Life to sign, and asked if he supported the tribe’s ban on uranium mining. Unfortunately, an aide quickly ushered me away. (No one needs a pesky pregnant lady holding up the line.) I had to employ similar tactics with former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, another Democrat.  

But things are far worse today for reporters trying to cover state government.

Public servants—whether governors, mayors, cabinet secretaries or PIOs—shouldn’t get to hand out interviews like prizes for good behavior. With salaries footed by taxpayers, PIOs aren’t paid to craft political messages or decide which journalists make the cut. They’re paid to answer the questions all journalists pose, as proxies for the public.

I’ll shoulder some of the blame for not getting answers from NMED. I didn’t raise my questions publicly at the press conference, which was unrelated to the mining rule or staffing changes. Even after the event ended, I didn’t interrupt Flynn’s conversations. Instead, I waited nearby—and trotted alongside him only when it was clear he was leaving the event.

I had planned to write about this for last month’s column; naively, I thought I’d give the administration just a few more weeks to show an honest willingness to talk. I was wrong to wait. I don’t need canned statements, elusive answers, or carefully crafted press releases. There are plenty of people working in and familiar with the department who care deeply about the environment, public health and the truth. And I’ll continue taking their calls.

In the coming months, the state’s Water Quality Control Commission will make its final decision on the copper mining rule. To read about the story behind the rule, visit SFReporter.com.

 

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