Reporter Rachel Knapp cried after state senators ejected her from a public meeting she was covering at the Capitol.
Knapp should have laughed. Gutless senators on the Conservation Committee handed her quite a story for the evening news on television station KRQE.
To the best of anyone’s memory, Knapp was the first reporter ousted from a public meeting by state legislators.
What did she do to gain this unwanted attention? Knapp tried to chronicle decisions by politicians who say they stand for open government.
So routine was the hearing that it might have generated nothing more than a few turgid paragraphs for the senators’ own campaign mailers.
But then that great progressive, Democratic Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque, kicked Knapp out.
An industrious young pro, Knapp carries the heavy equipment necessary to get footage for her stories, chases down leads and puts together her packages for daily broadcasts.
In her unobtrusive way, Knapp was covering the Conservation Committee one day last week. Then Sedillo Lopez made an issue of Knapp and her camera.
Sedillo Lopez asked the committee chairwoman, who was presenting a bill and therefore not running the meeting, if the person behind the camera had received permission to film the hearing.
Knapp spoke up. She said she assumed she could cover a public meeting.
Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, had other ideas. He objected to Knapp gathering footage of the meeting. Woods, acting as though Knapp was doing opposition research for some unspecified enemy, said the film might be “spliced and edited to be used against someone.”
Sedillo Lopez, that great champion of open government, asked Knapp to exit the meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said this decision was a first since he’s been a legislator.
“In 16 years, I’ve never seen a TV news camera asked to leave a hearing,” Wirth told me.
Give Sedillo Lopez an F for overreacting to a reporter doing her job.
Sens. Joe Cervantes and Bill Soules, Democrats from Las Cruces, briefly left the committee room to tell Knapp they disagreed with her removal.
Give Cervantes and Soules an F for not being brave enough to speak up before Sedillo Lopez forced Knapp out. They could have challenged Sedillo Lopez’s decision and restored sanity to the hearing.
Wirth, also a member of the Conservation Committee, was not in the room when Sedillo Lopez decided the reporter had to go. But Wirth said it was the wrong call.
“Rachel Knapp should not have been asked to leave the committee room,” he said.
Still, Wirth can be an apologist for senators skittish about cameras in open meetings. He said he agreed with a decision by Cervantes last year to deny access to a cameraman who wanted to film the Conservation Committee for a documentary.
There is no practical difference in the two cases. Each time, someone wanted to cover politicians in a public forum.
Why do people have to obtain permission from the committee chairman to film or photograph hearings? Senators established this rule when Gov. Susana Martinez was in power.
Martinez, a Republican, hired camera crews to film hearings in hopes of obtaining footage of Democratic lawmakers saying something stupid. Then she could use it against them in campaign ads.
Woods, though a fellow Republican, was targeted by Martinez in the 2012 election. Martinez favored the woman running against Woods in a Senate primary.
Martinez’s political adviser created ads attacking Woods, believing the negative attention would sink his candidacy.
The tactic backfired.
Woods, one of the more affable politicians in New Mexico, received a groundswell of support from Republican voters angered by Martinez’s involvement in a legislative race. Woods defeated the governor’s preferred candidate and took his seat in the Senate.
During legislative sessions, Martinez continued her strategy of using camera crews to capture gaffes by legislators.
Even so, committee leaders allowed Martinez’s crews to film legislative hearings. Doing otherwise would have generated attack ads about secrecy.
Signs posted outside Senate committee rooms stated that members of the news media did not have to receive permission to film hearings. But those signs predated the rule about committee leaders having to approve photography.
Someone removed these signs after Knapp’s eviction from the hearing.
Even before the controversy swirling around Knapp, Sen. Jeff Steinborn proposed doing away with the rule about people having to receive permission to film or photograph hearings.
Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, says people should have the opportunity to document their government’s work. Give him an A for statesmanship.
Woods and other senators say their hearings already are webcast by the body itself. Before Knapp got the boot, Woods said anyone who wanted footage of a hearing could get it from the legislative website.
Nonsense. Knapp and every other reporter work under deadline pressure. They can’t rely on a government entity to provide needed content.
Plus, all senators will tell you the idea of government-run media chills them to the bone.
They tend to say the right thing most of the time. Too bad several senators did nothing when Sedillo Lopez decided a reporter was out of line and out the door.