By Denise Tessier
It’s unusual for one newspaper to comment on another’s editorial decisions, but the Santa Fe Reporter did just that this past week (Feb. 8) in questioning why an Albuquerque Journal headline was changed to take on a “softer tone” toward the governor and why a story was taken off the web and revised before being posted again and appearing in print.
The Reporter is actually at the center of the story involved, which explains its special interest and sensitivity to the Journal’s headline and coverage of recent communication by state Attorney General Gary King to the office of Gov. Susana Martinez. The coverage stems from Santa Fe Reporter Joey Peters’ attempt last year to get copies of governor’s office emails and his subsequent complaint with the AG’s office for assistance when that attempt failed.
In a blog post, “ABQ Journal Changes Tone in Private Email Story,” the Santa Fe Reporter’s Justin Horwath laid out the Journal’s changes, even soliciting a quote from Journal Editor Kent Walz.
Those who follow Twitter, however, already had an inkling of something odd about the Journal’s handling of the story, when SFR’s Joey Peters publicly sent the Journal a couple of tweets that indicated its original story had been removed from ABQJournal online:
at 4:04 PM, Feb 7:
@ABQJournal why did you take down your article on @SantaFeReporter’s #IPRA troubles? bit.ly/TR4VCD #transparency
at 4:06 PM, Feb 7:
@ABQJournal So the story wasn’t even up for 24 hours? What’s going on?
Clicking on the link Peters provided, one gets a Page Not Found message on the Journal web site, and the original link, which itself indicates the original headline:
Horwath’s blog says the original Journal online story was headlined, “AG: Governor Wrongfully Withheld Emails,” then was changed to say, “AG Tells Gov. To Reconsider Email Response” both online and in print (Feb. 8). Horwath added:
The revisions offer a unique window into the editing process at New Mexico’s largest daily newspaper.
In working on his blog post, Horwath also went to Twitter to ask Journal city editor Charlie Moore, “Why the change in headlines?” and Moore replied: “Not really sure (went through a different desk), but second head was what appeared in print and reflects the lede.”
The story being covered is that King sent a letter warning the governor’s office it could end up paying the Santa Fe Reporter $100 a day, beginning last August, for insufficiently responding to an Inspection of Public Records Act request filed by SFR last June.
Continuing with his blog about the Journal’s coverage, Horwath wrote that:
The original article opened with a direct lede about the dispute: “Gov. Susana Martinez’s office wrongfully withheld records after an Inspection of Public Records Act request for emails related to state business sent by staffers using private email addresses, according to the Attorney General’s Office.”
The article published in the paper on Friday, however, had softened: “Attorney General Gary King’s Office is telling Gov. Susana Martinez’s staff to take a second look at its records to see if private emails related to state business were wrongfully withheld from a recent Inspection of Public Records Act request.”
The revision also removed direct references to a Martinez administration official, Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens, who sent one of the emails in question to Martinez’ political advisor Jay McCleskey, listing the names of non-union teachers in New Mexico. References to the content of that email have also been removed.
“The basic answer is, it really hadn’t gone all the way through the editing process,” Albuquerque Journal Editor-in-Chief Kent Walz tells SFR. “It really was a matter of trying to cross as many T’s and dot as many I’s as we could.”
Walz says the story needed “additional reporting.”
Horwath noted that the revised version allowed for extended comment from the governor’s office, letting the governor’s spokesman, Enrique Knell, say that King’s office was “playing politics” in telling the governor’s office to provide the requested public documents to SFR.
King, a Democrat, has indicated he will challenge Martinez, a Republican, in the next gubernatorial election.
“Despite adding more comments from the governor’s office to its revised story,” Horwath’s blog noted, “the Journal did not include any response from King about the allegation that he was ‘playing politics’.”
“We were never contacted for our side of the story,” King spokesman Phil Sisneros tells SFR. “But that’s not unusual.”
When asked why the Journal’s “additional reporting” didn’t include a comment from King, Walz said it’s “a good point. I don’t know. That’s something we may well still be pursuing.”
Both the original Journal story and the revised version are posted by the SFR below Horwath’s blog.
But more important than the language in the Journal reportage is the language in King’s letter to Martinez, which would explain the Journal’s changes. Did King’s office state that Martinez’s office indeed had “wrongfully withheld records” – which would be a legal statement regarding the governor’s office’s response, or did it ask the office to revisit Peter’s public records request? The newspaper, for its own legal reasons, would want to be accurate.
SFR published King’s letter on Feb. 7 (scroll down from the story), so the reader can read and decide. As would be expected in a letter from the “state’s lawyer,” nearly the entire first page summarizes what Peters “alleges” he requested and received (or not) and then the AG letter notes:
“. . .we believe the Governor’s response to Mr. Peters was insufficient because it did not clearly cover any responsive public records in the private email accounts specified in the request .”
Saying the response was “insufficient” is different from stating records were “wrongfully withheld,” although the AG’s office letter continues by outlining the penalties that could be imposed if the insufficiency is not corrected. It also reminds the governor’s office that IPRA (the Inspection of Public Records Act) gives “every person the right to inspect the public records of this state, with certain exceptions,” and that it already has been established that these emails are part of the public record.
So, the Journal was being prudent in pulling the online story for further editing for both online and print. The oddness of the situation is that the story had been posted online and pulled – and the Santa Fe Reporter caught that.
Postscript – Tracking Hundreds of New Laws and Criminal Penalties
The last half of that Weekly Word podcast, by the way, includes an interview with Las Cruces attorney Mike Lilley that is well worth a listen. Speaking on behalf of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, Lilley tells listeners that he and others in the organization are currently tracking in the Legislature at least 100 bills that would create new crimes or increase penalties for existing crimes.
Most are unnecessary, he said, as “we already have enough laws, sufficient penalties to deal with just about every situation that arises.” An exception is the online prostitution bill (HB295), which would criminalize activity not covered by current law.
Another is a record expunging proposal, which covers new ground. Among its provisions are relief for identity-theft victims, who now are burdened with filing expensive motions in court to expunge from their records crimes that were committed in their name by someone else.
But the Legislature is faced with “hundreds of new ones,” Lilley said, “many of which are not thought out” and which could create huge and expensive problems (creating a need for more jails and justice employees, for example) if passed.
One bill, he noted, proposes that suffocation or strangulation be made a third-degree felony. Currently, those two things are already a third-degree felony – aggravated battery – if they result in harm; they are deemed a misdemeanor if they don’t result in harm.
As originally drafted, the new proposal would create a third-degree felony if one were to put their hands around someone’s neck – or even pinch someone’s nose or put a hand over their mouth, Lilley said. He offered this scenario: Imagine youths doing any of these things while rough-housing and a parent gets upset and takes the allegation to the police. What now would be dismissed or classed as a misdemeanor would rise to the level of a felony under this bill.
Lilley and his colleagues follow bills through committees, attend hearings, testify and talk to legislators about these bills. Kudos to Peters and Reichbach for bringing attention to this by bringing Lilley on the show.