The rumbling began in Carlsbad on Aug. 14 at a campaign rally for Republican gubernatorial candidate and former television weatherman Mark Ronchetti that featured an appearance by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential hopeful.
The sound was somewhat faint at first, unless you were looking at Twitter, with news of the event largely focused on the political tightrope Ronchetti walks in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans juxtaposed against the now-familiar, red-meat rhetoric DeSantis frequently serves up to the MAGA crowd.
But the noise grew louder in the coming days, after the New Mexico press corps homed in on the Ronchetti campaign’s refusal to allow journalist Shaun Griswold into the event, even though he had a ticket.
From KSFR to New Mexico In Depth to the Las Cruces Sun-News to Griswold’s editor at Source New Mexico, a metaphorical layup line formed to dunk on the campaign for such an obvious affront to press freedom. The local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists jumped in, as did the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the state’s leading transparency organization. A website called The Conservative New Mexican appears to have offered the campaign’s lone public defense.
Griswold had tried to obtain a press credential for the event, but the campaign denied him access on account of perceived unfair coverage by Source New Mexico. That’s why he bought the ticket—to attend as a regular joe. Campaign staff, apparently marshaled by spokesman Enrique Knell, were ready: They had a photo of Griswold handy and, on seeing him, threw the kibosh.
Why all the angst about Griswold, who has worked in print, digital and television news in New Mexico and Colorado for a decade? Albuquerque Journal reporter Dan McKay asked Knell. Ronchetti’s crew froze Griswold out because Source New Mexico is “a left-wing advocacy group, not a legitimate news organization,” came Knell’s reply.
The phrasing sounded familiar to SFR. That’s because Knell has used it before. What did he mean, exactly? Knell did not respond to messages seeking an interview for this story, but there’s some puzzling history on what “left-wing” means to him.
Knell has been part of the political machine for years, working as a spokesman for former Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson and, later, as the head flack for Susana Martinez’s 2010 GOP gubernatorial campaign and for her administration after that. He has once again joined forces with political operative Jay McCleskey—a top Martinez adviser—to control the politics and messaging for Ronchetti’s run against Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Knell was Martinez’s spokesman when SFR sued her administration for claims of serially violating the Inspection of Public Records Act, most of which the newspaper prevailed on at trial, and for “viewpoint discrimination,” essentially arguing that Martinez had violated the New Mexico constitution by elbowing SFR out of the routine flow of information because she didn’t like our coverage. Then-state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled against SFR on the latter claim, which may offer some insight as to why Knell thinks it’s OK to pick which journalists get to cover his boss.
When SFR filed suit in 2013, reporters around the state asked Knell for comment. He sent five of them the same statement: “It’s not a surprise that a left-wing weekly tabloid that published stolen emails containing the Governor’s personal underwear order would file a baseless lawsuit like this. Their public records requests are treated the same as every other citizen in New Mexico.”
(By way of explanation: Some emails the governor sent using a private server included personal shopping; others showed public business conducted in private.)
The last of the five to receive the statement: Shaun Griswold, then of KOB-TV.
SFR counsel Daniel Yohalem pressed Knell for context under oath in a deposition. “I remember reading through the lawsuit, thinking it was kind of out in left field, and characterizing it that way,” Knell said. Yohalem probed deeper, inquiring about Knell’s understanding of the difference between “left-wing” and “right-wing” from a politics perspective. Had Knell meant “political left field” when describing SFR?
“Not necessarily,” Knell testified. “I mean, I thought that—I thought it was a—you know, came out of nowhere, was wrong, was inaccurate, was misleading. And I think I had the right to express that, express that on behalf of the governor’s office.”
Knell repeated several times that he was referring to the lawsuit, not SFR, when he issued the statement. (Never mind the reference to a “left-wing tabloid.”)
Knell concluded that portion of the deposition by saying he didn’t consult McCleskey before writing the statement, but he may have gotten input from Martinez higher-ups Keith Gardner or Scott Darnell. (He didn’t know whether either of them received feedback from McCleskey.) Knell testified he was neither reprimanded nor praised in the office for making the statement.
He’s now used similar language to justify tossing a journalist out of a campaign event. And the episode raises an important question: If Ronchetti wins, his job will be to govern all New Mexicans—but how would he treat those his advisers consider “left-wing,” regardless of whether that refers to politics or a section of a baseball diamond?