Qualification Conundrum

Ronchetti campaign wouldn’t let journalist into event due to perceived “left-wing” bias; Gov. Lujan Grisham has done the same with conservative writers

John Block and Nick Wilbur stand staunchly against abortion rights. A quick perusal of their published writing at the Piñon Post and The Conservative New Mexican, respectively, leaves no doubt about their position.

But both consider their online platforms to be “media” organizations—with Block even telling SFR in an interview that he is a journalist—and as such, he wanted to ask Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about her $10 million pledge for a new abortion clinic in the Las Cruces area during a virtual news conference on Aug. 31.

Block says he planned to write about the event for his website; it’s not clear what Wilbur intended because he refused to be interviewed for this story.

Neither of the self-styled, out-in-the-open conservative writers got the chance. That’s because when they asked the governor’s office for media credentials, spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett gave them the brushoff: She never responded to their emailed requests.

“If we want news to accurately reflect what actually happens at these events, we need to allow all the press to have a seat at the table,” Block tells SFR.

The kerfuffle comes after a similarly troubling incident in which officials from Republican former television weatherman Mark Ronchetti’s campaign refused entry at an event in Carlsbad to Shaun Griswold of the online publication Source New Mexico.

Campaign spokesman Enrique Knell told the Albuquerque Journal he denied Griswold entry because Source is a “left-wing advocacy group, not a legitimate news organization.” (SFR published a story on Aug. 31 raising questions about that characterization and what Knell meant; you can read that here.)

Sackett’s explanation for why Block, who is running for a seat in the Legislature, and Wilbur couldn’t get their questions in front of the governor falls in the same bucket. Both are “self-described as being of a partisan political basis,” writes Sackett, who responded to SFR’s requests for an interview with an email.

Lujan Grisham values a free press, Sackett writes, but “the critical role of journalists holding the government accountable is vastly different from political operatives masquerading as news operations.”

The Democratic Party of New Mexico climbed all over Ronchetti for icing Griswold out, calling the move a “Trumpian scheme” and an “attack on First Amendment rights.” But party spokesman Daniel Garcia was untroubled by the governor’s pickiness over who gets to ask her questions, sending SFR the following two-sentence statement: “John Block is a Republican nominee for office. Just because he’s posting partisan columns on a Republican blog, that does not make him a journalist.”

Likewise, Delaney Corcoran, a spokesperson for Lujan Grisham’s reelection campaign, retweeted several critiques of the Griswold incident (including SFR’s) and offered some of her own thoughts on social media.

What about Block and Wilbur? SFR asked Corcoran. Her response was nearly identical to Sackett’s.

Block says Ronchetti was within his bounds to deny Griswold entry to the highly publicized appearance with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, to which Ronchetti sold tickets, because it was a “private event,” while Lujan Grisham’s news conference was “public” and addressing the “hot-button issue on both sides” of abortion.

The tit-for-tat spotlights a bedeviling question felt in newsrooms and in the halls of power all over America these days: Who is, in fact, a journalist, and who gets to decide?

Certainly there are objectively-defined differences between Source and Griswold, who has worked in print, digital and television news in New Mexico and Colorado for a decade, and Block/the Post and Wilbur/The Conservative. Check out the Source site, and you’ll see an editorial structure and commonly accepted standards; not so with either of the conservative sites.

Block tells SFR his posts go through “checks and balances”—an editing process of sorts—before publication. But his site lists no names, and he declined to identify them for SFR.

And while it was explicitly clear what Griswold was doing at the Carlsbad event—trying to report on a campaign rally held by a candidate for the state’s highest office—that analysis is muddier when it comes to Block’s or Wilbur’s interest in the abortion access expansion event. In a post at The Conservative decrying the press’ reaction to Griswold getting bounced in Carlsbad, Wilbur wrote that his and Block’s request for credentials was meant to “test this theory of supposed ‘press freedom.’”

Wilbur cast further doubt on his motives in an email to SFR: “The issue is not that the Democrat governor denied access to conservative news outlets. As [SFR] knows, that’s not illegal—and in neither case was relevant information kept from the public at large. The issue is that local media have been silent about it despite suffering a collective conniption when the same thing happened to a far-left news outlet at the hands of a Republican candidate. It’s not journalistic ethics if you only apply your rule to one side.”

Knell, Ronchetti’s spokesman, has never been willing to define who is and who is not suitable to write about his bosses, including former Gov. Susana Martinez.

Sackett took a stab at Lujan Grisham’s definition in her two emails to SFR. They left quite a bit to be desired, and Sackett dodged most of SFR’s direct questions.

“The governor’s office credentials reporters and outlets that are bona fide correspondents of repute in their profession that operate in good faith, which includes avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest,” Sackett writes, pointing out that a link to the livestream of the governor’s abortion access event is available online. (She would not provide an explanation for how the Lujan Grisham administration determines criteria such as “bona fide” or “of repute,” and Block says he was left to use others’ reporting to put together his story.)

Block is running for office, Sackett continues, which means he has “an inherent conflict of interest.” And The Conservative, “in addition to being run by an individual who publicly discloses his political support and preference for a partisan candidate in the gubernatorial election, openly states that their mission ‘is to win the hearts and minds of voters’ and that ‘bias is not wrong.’”

Sackett refused to provide a list of news organizations or reporters who asked for—or were granted—credentials for last month’s event.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the state’s leading government transparency organization and a longtime defender of press freedoms, took the unusual step of chastising Ronchetti for the Carlsbad incident. SFR presented the Block/Wilbur denial to FOG and asked for comment.

Melanie Majors, the group’s executive director, made it clear that politicians of either stripe shouldn’t be picking winners and losers among reporters based on ideology. Much of the statement she sent SFR came verbatim from FOG’s published take on Griswold’s denial.

“It’s a dangerous precedent to let any public servant decide who is and is not a ‘legitimate’ reporter,” Majors writes, in part. “Reporters are the eyes and ears of the public. If they can be silenced by being denied access to events of public interest, the members of the public are the ultimate victims.”

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