April 2, 2013 — Sometimes my morning gets off to a really steamy start, and my blood pressure soars right off the chart. I generally begin my day at the Times with a quick review of items reported by several news outlets — regional and national — just to get a feel for what’s happening out there in the real world beyond Susanville. Last Tuesday was no exception.
Then I came across a story from the Redding Record Searchlight regarding a townhall meeting the night before featuring our congressman Doug LaMalfa at the Destiny Fellowship Church that really got the veins on my forehead bulging. According to the story, the Redding Tea Party had arranged the townhall meeting with the congressman and then announced its membership had adopted rules regarding what the media could report.
Yes, that’s right. Elizabeth Woodward, a volunteer and organizer for the Redding Tea Party, said members of the group had recently voted to make the question and answer portion of all its future meetings off the record for the press. As incredible as that seems, in subsequent stories later in the week they proclaimed they intend to continue that policy.
On an audio recording of part of the event included on the group’s website, a Tea Party organizer identified only as Erin explained what she called the “media issue.” She said members of the group voted to make the question and answer portion of its meetings off the record because of press coverage in which the group felt it was “characterized poorly or cast in a bad light.”
Erin said the group also considered a couple of other unworkable options — closing its meetings to the public or asking to see news reports before they were published or broadcast.
She said, “ … When it gets to the Q and A, then people who come should be able to ask their questions, get their answers and not be afraid they’re going to show up on the news and look like a dummy because that’s not why people come here, and that makes it difficult for folks. So, if you’ve taken the time to come here, you want to ask a question, and you’re afraid you’re going to get singled out and made fun of, we’re not doing that because we’re asking the people in the media — I don’t care if you’re print, computer, camera, whatever your thing is — we’ll take a break after the presentation (and) you guys can go if you need to or stay if you like, but that’s the off the record part. OK? So if that shows up in the news, then we have a different discussion next week, and we’ll begin to vote on different options.”
She asked if “everyone was cool with that?” and then she said, “So the presentation part, you’re on. The Q and A from the folks in the audience, not on. OK? So that way you can ask what you like and not have to sweat that. It’s kind of gotten progressively worse, so if you’re new here, we’re sorry. Welcome to our world.”
A Redding television station’s reporter apparently also caved to the Redding Tea Party’s request.
According to the Searchlight’s report, “Asked after his meeting whether he had any issues with the media quoting him on his responses, LaMalfa, who was autographing a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag, said he liked to adhere to a group’s rules and declined further comment.”
But the congressman’s camp in Washington, D.C. put a whole different spin on the story.
“The congressman was a guest at that event,” said Kevin Eastman, LaMalfa’s press representative. “He did not set those rules, and was not aware of that prior to the event … So, if there’s a misunderstanding, it’s between that group and the media. The congressman was a guest at the event.”
Eastman also said the newspaper’s reporting of what LaMalfa allegedly said while he was autographing the flag was inaccurate.
“I don’t believe that’s accurate,” Eastman said of the published report. “Did he say it was the group’s rules? I think so.”
Erin announced these restrictions as part of the LaMalfa’s introduction, and the issue of the television station reporting being banned from the Q and A session was also discussed immediately after his presentation after someone tweeted the story had already made the airwaves. Shouldn’t a United States congressman recognize the freedom of the press being trampled in his presence when the organizers announce — ‘OK, we’re going off-the-record now, and the press won’t report it?’
Let me be clear. The desire of the Redding Tea Party members to speak off the record beyond the public’s hearing and awareness can easily be understood, and it can easily be accomplished. All they have to do is hold their meetings in private without the public, without the media and without the congressman. They need to recognize and understand when an elected official speaks at a meeting the public can attend it’s a public meeting and what is said should not and cannot be off the record for the press. The Redding Tea Party doesn’t get to say what the media will report when covering a public event. It’s not their call, and it just doesn’t work that way.
Shame on the Redding Tea Party for creating such rules. And shame on the Redding media for accepting them. Instead, they should have packed up immediately, ran right out of that church and written stories about how the American media can never accept such prior restraint from a public event’s organizers.
But for our congressman — who is sworn to uphold the constitution — to capitulate to this group’s self-created secrecy rules and allow and permit the interaction between his constituents and him to go off the record is totally and completely unacceptable and indefensible.
He missed a perfect opportunity to stand up for the First Amendment and offer the Redding Tea Party a simple and clear lesson regarding the freedom of the press — a topic this group obviously missed in its civics 101 classes. Sadly, he did not, and lamely said he was willing to go along with Redding Tea Party’s censorship rules.
So, shame on you, too, Mr. Congressman.
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