Campaign shouldn’t have excluded reporter

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Trip Jennings

Martin Heinrich’s campaign stumbled last week when it prevented Rob Nikolewski of Capitol Report New Mexico from covering Sen. John Kerry with other reporters.

Let me be clear: I don’t care one way or the other about liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.

This is not a post about anyone’s politics, party affiliation or ideology. It’s not an endorsement of anyone in any political campaign in any state or country during any epoch of history.

This post is about my tribe – journalists.

According to a video Nikolewski took of the confrontation, a campaign staffer asked Nikolewski if he thought he was part of the media and then, answering her own question, told him that his employment by a Libertarian think tank — in this case, the Rio Grande Foundation – was reason enough to turn him away.

The decision by Heinrich’s campaign is worrisome because it was Nikolewski this time. Next time, however, it might be me getting the brush off from a campaign.

Elected officials and political candidates have the power to shut out journalists, and some aren’t afraid to use it. Not all elected officials and candidates do this stuff. But enough do it, and they’re diverse enough in their partisan and ideological affiliations to undermine any arguments that any side is worse than the other.

In seeking entry, Nikolewski reminded a Heinrich spokesperson the campaign had sent him media advisories and press releases regularly. (With the Kerry event, the campaign sent invites to a few journalists. Nikolewski wasn’t among them, even though he works out of the state Capitol media room with other reporters. Another thing to bear in mind: the Kerry event was at the Rio Chama steakhouse, right next to the Capitol.)

The night of the Kerry event Nikolewski did something I myself have done. He went to an event without an invite. Yes, good journalism is fair. But it’s also aggressive. And it’s challenging. Kudos to Nikolewski for calling out the campaign after it turned him away.

In denying Nikolewski entry, in addition to citing his affiliation with the Rio Grande Foundation, a campaign representative told him the event was closed to press, even though at that moment it was allowing five reporters in for a question-and-answer session with Kerry, including two reporters from the same media organization.

Minutes after he was turned away, Nikolewski received a call from one of those two reporters who told Nikolewski he would lobby the campaign to let him in, Nikolewski wrote in a message to me. It makes my heart warm to hear this.

Nikolewski thanked the reporter, but declined the intercession.

“I’ve been covering politics here in New Mexico for more than two years and in that time, I think I’ve proven myself to be a fair reporter, willing to ask tough questions of politicians of all stripes,” Nikolewski wrote to me. “… the Heinrich camp is sending me and other reporters multiple news releases a day during the campaign. So they want me (and the media) to follow their candidate but then when they also want to act as gatekeeper regarding who gets to ask their candidate questions. That’s not only high-handed but it betrays a dismissiveness to reporters that says, ‘Just be good little stenographers and be happy with whatever we send your way.'”

The Heinrich campaign declined to comment on the incident Friday.

I’m with Nikolewski. Here’s the thing. There are fewer and fewer of us who belong to the journalistic tribe. We’re often outnumbered, and outgunned, by the phalanx of spokespeople, political consultants and other staff working for campaigns. We must stick together.

I’ve come to this conclusion after more than 20 years as a journalist, a period during which I have worked at newspapers across the U.S., some conservative, others liberal, as well as an online newspaper.

Invariably wherever I have worked, some elected officials – conservative or liberal, depending on my employment — have been skeptical of me because of the media outlet I represented. In response, I endeavored to do my job as a reporter, mindful to avoid getting tangled up in partisanship and the politics of ideology.

Even so, during my time as a reporter, I made two governors’ enemies lists – one, a Republican in Connecticut, the other, a Democrat in New Mexico. How do I know I this? In the case of the Republican, he singled me out in a crowded room during a political event and said ‘You’re on my shit list” for everyone to hear. It seems my stories about a growing scandal that eventually landed him in federal prison for corruption weren’t to his tastes. As for the Democrat, his press office didn’t return my phone calls or e-mails for more than a year because of stories I’d written about a growing scandal here in New Mexico.

And lest I forget, I also on occasion have pissed off political candidates, including the current New Mexico governor. Her campaign shut me out in 2010 when I wrote a blog about one of her contributors – Clayton Williams, the GOP candidate in the 1990 gubernatorial race in Texas.

When I read articles Nikolewski had written on the U.S. Senate race following the Heinrich campaign’s action, I expected to find stories that put him on the campaign’s bad side.

None of the pieces I read shouted “libertarian bias” despite the Heinrich campaign’s focus on his affiliation with the Rio Grande Foundation. Nor did the stories show a hyper-aggressiveness or a personal animus against the candidate.

They were fair, and they were informative.

So why was Nikolewski turned away from the Kerry event?

I don’t know, other than Martin Heinrich’s campaign did what it did because it could. It had the power, and it used it arbitrarily. What they did to Rob Nikolewski was unnecessary and disrespectful.