When she was running for office, Susana Martinez campaigned on open government and promises of transparency. But journalists here say her administration routinely blocks access to state experts and employees, and won’t respond to questions from news organizations that have published critical stories. According to a lawsuit filed by the Santa Fe Reporter against the governor, that kind of blacklisting is discrimination and censorship.
That lawsuit went to trial last month. KUNM was in the courtroom.
It used to be that journalists could call up a state public health expert to get more information about, say, New Mexico kids who have elevated levels of lead in their blood—to take an example from recent headlines. But those days are gone.
Questions for the Governor’s Office and her agencies are funneled through one guy. Enrique Knell was that guy for two-and-a-half years until mid-2015. Here’s how Knell described his job in court to Gov. Martinez’s lawyer, Paul Kennedy, who asked, "While you were the governor’s communications director, what did you see your function as?"
"My function was there to represent the governor, to help communicate her vision, her actions, to the people of New Mexico," Knell said.
Knell was paid $80,000 a year by taxpayers to be the voice of Gov. Martinez, not, he testified, to answer questions from a small weekly paper in Santa Fe. He said he prioritized requests from beat reporters for TV news stations or the Albuquerque Journal, because they have bigger audiences and tighter deadlines.
But the Santa Fe Reporter is known for carrying long-form, investigative news that gets at the “why” of a story. Kennedy asked Knell whether their questions seemed numerous and overly complex. "And did the Santa Fe Reporter view you in any way as a research service?" Kennedy asked.
"I would say yes," Knell said.
After Gov. Martinez took office, the Santa Fe Reporter investigated how members of her administration used private email addresses to do public business. They ran a cover story pointing out the hypocrisy, given her campaign-trail promises of open government. Then, journalists at The Reporter say, Knell and his staff started freezing them out. So they filed suit in 2013, saying the administration was discriminating against the paper and blocking reporters’ access.
At the time, Knell issued an email statement to other media outlets, saying the lawsuit from this "left-wing" tabloid was no surprise. In court, though, Knell changed his tune with a not-so-successful attempt to redefine “left-wing.”
"Why’d you call them a left-wing weekly tabloid?" Kennedy asked.
"I was responding to this lawsuit that they filed that came out of left field," Knell testified.
Alexa Schirtzinger was the Santa Fe Reporter’s editor at the time. "We certainly had the feeling that we were being completely cut off and we were not able to get comments on stories," she said from the stand. She told the court the paper was being stonewalled by the Governor’s Office, and that made it hard to report on what the government was up to. "Our purpose is to serve the governed—not the governor," Schirtzinger said. "People who are governed need an understanding of what their governors are doing and why they’re doing it."
The governor’s attorney, Kennedy, went out of his way to knock journalism and journalists. At one point, the judge even jumped in to shift the narrative. "You’re out of the journalism racket now, right?" Kennedy asked.
"I wouldn’t call it a racket, but yes, I’m out of it," Schirtzinger said.
"You’re out of the journalism …" Kennedy searched for the right word.
"Profession?" Judge Sarah Singleton supplied.
But did the Martinez administration hold a negative view of paper? The governor’s current spokesman, Chris Sanchez, testified that when he used the word “tabloid” to refer to The Reporter, he was talking about the size and shape of the newspaper. This, after their lawyer, Kennedy, had wielded that term like an insult repeatedly over the course of the three-day trial.
The Santa Fe Reporter’s editor and publisher now is Julie Ann Grimm. We talked shortly after the trial was over. "It was hard to hear at times," she said. "The governor’s attorney really doesn’t seem to respect journalism as a profession. He just really tried to make us feel uncomfortable and insignificant."
If they lose this discrimination claim, Grimm said, it will set a dangerous precedent. "I think that if the Santa Fe Reporter doesn’t receive a judgment in our favor, it will also send a signal to public officials that size matters," she said. "Because that’s one of the arguments that the Governor’s Office attorney made, that, you know, the Santa Fe Reporter is not a big fish."
The Santa Fe Reporter’s lawyer, Daniel Yohalem, said after the trial that ultimately, picking and choosing which news organization gets comments or information has a chilling effect on free speech. "We’re seeing these kinds of games played by the president of the United States and our concern is that to the extent a governor thinks that she or he can get away with limiting access based on content, that’s a way of really censoring."
KUNM reached out to the Governor’s Office to talk about this trial, but Press Secretary Michael Lonergan turned us down.
Tune in tomorrow for part two of our coverage, when we look at the lawsuit’s allegations of government secrecy. Marisa Demarco reported this story jointly for KUNM and for the Santa Fe Reporter.