- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Obama administration’s testy relationship with the press is nothing new for Washington, but it’s now extended to Colorado and has touched off a firestorm after Interior Department officials booted local reporters from a public meeting last week.

Journalists with Colorado's Craig Daily Press and at least two other media outlets were barred from a Tuesday question-and-answer session with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, despite the fact that members of the public were allowed to attend.

“We were promised the most transparent administration ever and instead we’ve gotten the opposite,” said Moffat County, Colo., Commissioner John Kinkaid, who attended the meeting along with his two fellow commissioners, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and other officials.

“What Sally Jewell did … That’s how this administration runs,” Mr. Kinkaid added.

Ms. Jewell, a former retail executive named to the Interior post by President Obama last year, “does not understand what the First Amendment is and what it means to freedom of the press.” said Noelle Leavitt Riley, managing editor of the Craig Daily Press.

Interior spokesman Blake Androff said the secretary closed the meeting to press in order to ensure an “open and frank conversation.”

“We spent more than 60 minutes engaging with five reporters at the ranch and also made the secretary available to reporters after the meeting,” Mr. Androff said in an email. “The stakeholder meeting was scheduled to last 60 minutes but the secretary personally chose to stay an additional 30 minutes to make sure every voice was heard. The meeting was closed to press to allow for an open and frank conversation, but there were many opportunities for reporters to cover the visit.”

The meeting came on the heels of Ms. Jewell’s tour of a ranch in Moffat County. The tour was meant to allow Ms. Jewell the chance to witness “innovative efforts to conserve and enhance habitat for sage grouse,” according to the Interior Department.

Following that tour, Ms. Jewell was to meet with Mr. Kinkaid, Mr. Hickenlooper and other officials for a “stakeholder meeting” on the issue.

Given that all three Moffat County commissioners would be in attendance, Mr. Kinkaid said they advertised the meeting and invited members of the public, in order to comply with Colorado's Sunshine Law.

“That way our bases were covered,” he said.

Ms. Riley said Ms. Jewell’s desire for an open discussion should not have trumped the press’ right to attend what was billed as a public meeting.

“I responded back to the Department of Interior, ‘Look, I appreciate your response, but if American public officials are allowed to close meetings because they want to have frank discussions, then what does that say about our democracy?’” Ms. Riley said.

“The sage grouse issue is huge. We were excited she was coming,” Ms. Riley said. “Her visit was marred by her not putting any forethought into the repercussions of her closing a public meeting to the press. And she put county officials in a bad position.”

Interior Department staff allowed members of the public into the room, but at least three reporters were kicked out, Mr. Kinkaid said. A reporter with the Craig Daily Press twice tried to enter but was denied, according to Colorado media reports.

It turns out that Ms. Jewell and federal officials aren’t subject to Colorado open-meetings laws and therefore state statutes weren’t violated, according to Ms. Riley, who sought legal advice from the Colorado Press Association following the incident.

But she and others assert that the First Amendment itself was trampled because the reporters were singled out and shown the door.

Outlets across the state now are slamming the administration’s handling of the meeting.

“The disregard that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell showed for Colorado's open meetings laws this week barring reporters from an event in Craig is astonishing,” The Denver Post wrote in an editorial. “Such actions are indefensible and have the side effect of raising suspicions about the feds’ intent. Colorado law was simply ignored.”

The Craig Daily Press was equally harsh in its assessment.

“What’s concerning about the situation is that members of the public were allowed in the sage grouse meeting but not the media,” reads a Daily Press editorial. “We’d like to remind the secretary that members of the press are also members of the public. … We’re not on a crusade against Jewell, we just want her to acknowledge the double standard that was created Tuesday. If every elected official in America decided to close the press out of meetings to foster frank discussion, well, we would have not have a democracy.”

In Washington, the White House Correspondents’ Association and other media outlets and organizations have blasted this administration for routinely blocking access to President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and other White House officials.

It’s common for White House photographers to be denied access to Mr. Obama’s meetings, while the administration instead disseminates photographs and video from official White House photographers through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Ms. Riley and Mr. Kinkaid both said Interior Department photographers snapped shots at the meeting, the latest example of the administration barring the press while relying on its own employees to take pictures and video.

Valerie Richardson reported from Denver.

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