President Donald Trump’s administration is sparring with the national news media lately, but those tensions have been growing in New Mexico for quite a while. It’s been over three years since Santa Fe’s alternative weekly newspaper sued Gov. Susana Martinez over press freedom and the public’s right to know.
KUNM’s Chris Boros spoke with reporter Marisa Demarco about the trial, which starts on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
KUNM: This trial for a local paper and New Mexico’s governor comes at an interesting time. Do you think it’s similar to what’s happening between President Trump’s administration and national media?
Demarco: President Trump hasn’t been so shy about battling with media. He calls national news media the “enemy of the American people.” And last year he was denying some news organizations press credentials, including the Washington Post. And this year, Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred some news organizations from a press briefing.
And this is common for some news organizations in New Mexico to not get comment from Gov. Susana Martinez’ administration, or to not get press releases, or to not have their questions answered at news conferences. So the idea here is that after critical news reporting, government officials blacklist some media companies or journalists. And the lawsuit is saying, “Yeah, that’s what the administration did to Santa Fe Reporter, and it interferes with a free press, which is protected by the Constitution.”
KUNM: Was there, though, a certain story or topic that set all of this off?
Demarco: Yeah, back in 2012, the governor and her staff and her administration were using private emails to conduct public business, which is something that officials do sometimes to avoid those emails becoming public when someone makes a records request.
So the emails showed a lot about what her administration was up to. So those private emails were leaked, and SFR published them. And then the governor threatened the paper with a lawsuit. And then SFR highlighted the hypocrisy of the governor doing all this after promising that she would run the most transparent and open government ever when she was on the campaign trail.
KUNM: So there’s the blacklisting issue and then there’s the question of open government and press access. But there’s also a public records component to this case, right?
Demarco: Yeah, so the paper started trying to use public records requests more often to get information. And that’s really common for journalists. You can’t get information by asking questions directly so you go to IPRA, and that’s the state’s public records act. Those requests weren’t being filled or being filled correctly, according to the lawsuit, and it’s a violation of the law. So the judge already ruled on a couple of those, but there are still five left heading into the trial.
KUNM: And who’s expected to take the stand?
Demarco: So, the governor’s not expected to take the stand, but her current and former chiefs of staff are. And that’s Scott Darnell and Keith Gardner. Plus, spokespeople for Martinez, the state’s records custodian, people who work at the Santa Fe Reporter, one of the paper’s owners …
KUNM: So why does any of this matter to, you know, KUNM listeners, or people who aren’t members of the media?
Demarco: Because the only way our whole system works is if people know what their government is really up to. And that’s part of our job, right, is to find that out and tell everyone about it. So if elected officials are blocking media access or hiding info about how decisions are made, or how the public’s taxes are spent, that’s a problem for all of us.