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Editorial: Booting reporter from Senate hearing was the wrong call

The word “bipartisan” is often tossed around in political discourse as the gold standard of politics to which our elected officials should aspire.

But sometimes that should be taken with a grain of salt.

The downside of reaching across the aisle was on full display at the New Mexico Legislature last week when Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, with support from Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, booted a reporter for KRQE News 13 and her camera equipment from a public meeting of the Senate Conservation Committee deliberating a hazardous waste bill. Nothing like progressives and conservatives finding common ground.

Reporter Rachel Knapp was doing her job when Sedillo Lopez (who was chairing the meeting because Chairwoman Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, was presenting a bill), asked Knapp if she had permission from the chair to record the proceedings. She didn’t. “I just figured it was a public meeting,” Knapp replied, as reported by the Santa Fe New Mexican. “I’m Rachel with Channel 13. I’m a reporter.”

Woods jumped in, saying he opposed Knapp’s filming.

“I just prefer this not to be spliced and edited to be used against someone,” he said, before adding, incredibly, legislators might not be “totally truthful” if they are afraid of how their comments might be edited in a newscast.

Public relies on media to be eyes and ears

Memo to Sen. Woods: It’s the news media’s job to make judgments on what comments are newsworthy. The public relies on journalists to do that – rather than having politicians do it or sitting for hours to watch committee meetings online. And how does being less than truthful help?

Then, Sedillo Lopez – a former law professor who should know better – told Knapp: “I’m sorry. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Sedillo Lopez can point to a Senate rule stipulating that photography, video or audio recording of committee meetings, may, upon request, be allowed with the permission of the chair. And Knapp had not sought permission from Stefanics, who said she supports transparency and called the incident “unfortunate.”

No lawmakers stepped up for reporter

Other committee members left the room to tell Knapp they didn’t agree with the decision, but they didn’t stand up and say so during the committee meeting – perhaps not wanting to offend Sedillo Lopez or make her look any worse than she already does.

Bill Anderson, general manager of KRQE, called the incident “not acceptable” and “offensive.” He said he assumed it was simply an “error in judgment” but added, “Nothing good happens in government when these people close the door and want to talk when no one’s listening.”

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the public has a right to know what’s going on in a committee hearing at the Legislature and “reporters have the right to use their tools to capture the proceedings.”

A number of senators, in the wake of Sedillo Lopez asking Knapp to leave, voiced support for transparency. Some of them, according to The Santa Fe New Mexican, told Knapp they disagreed with the decision. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said “Rachel Knapp should not have been asked to leave the committee room.”

Senator’s fix to let sun shine in is on tap today

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, is doing something about it. He has proposed a change that would eliminate the “permission” requirement for reporters or members of the public to record proceedings. SR 2 is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Rules Committee chaired by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque.

So there is a possible silver lining here. All it will take is for all those senators who talk transparency to walk the transparency talk. Get Steinborn’s two-paragraph legislation on a fast track and approve it. There’s plenty of time left in the session if lawmakers are serious about letting more sunshine into these committee hearings.

Oh, and Sedillo Lopez and Woods should apologize to a reporter who was just doing her job.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.