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House Information Officer Shannon Bettencourt blocks Concord Monitor reporters Annmarie Timmins and Matthew Spolar from attending House Speaker Bill O'Brien's FRiday press conference on EBT card abuse.
Saturday, July 7, 2012

O’Brien keeps Concord Monitor reporters out of press event

CONCORD – House Speaker William O’Brien banned two Concord Monitor reporters from attending Friday’s press conference on abuse of welfare benefits.

Annmarie Timmins and Matthew Spolar, political reporters for the Monitor, arrived at the event only to learn that they would not be allowed inside O’Brien’s office, where the media availability was held.

House Information Officer Shannon Bettencourt said the event was by invitation only and that those not sent an invite were not admitted.

In a YouTube video posted by Timmins, Bettencourt ignored Timmins’ request for answers as to why she was being kept out of the press conference.

“I don’t know the issue. No one’s ever told me,” Timmins said to Bettencourt. “This speaker has never spoken to me, so I don’t know the reasons.”

Later in the day, Bettencourt explained in an email that it was a cartoon the Monitor ran on its editorial page that led to the reporters being kept out. In late May, the paper published a cartoon from Mike Marland that depicted the House speaker as Adolf Hitler.

This was “one example of irresponsible choices made by the Monitor,” Bettencourt wrote in an email to the paper.

“When the Concord Monitor proves they have chosen to become a responsible media outlet, we’ll be happy to invite them to future media events,” Bettencourt wrote.

The Hitler cartoon was in response to a Republican lawmaker who had uttered “Sieg Heil” on the House floor during a public dispute with O’Brien. The cartoon had the caption, “If the mustache fits … ”

At the time, then-House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, of Salem, whose wife is Shannon Bettencourt, said GOP lawmakers should respond by refusing to do interviews with reporters for the Monitor in protest. A group of 50 House Republicans signed a letter condemning the newspaper.

The Telegraph received a notification about Friday’s press event Thursday afternoon in an email from Bettencourt. There was no indication in the email that the event was by invitation only. The email was marked as an advisory.

O’Brien declined to comment about the controversy when reporters asked him about it.

Among those media outlets covering the event were reporters, photographers or videographers for The Telegraph, The Associated Press, the New Hampshire Union Leader, New Hampshire Public Radio, The Keene Sentinel, WMUR-TV, NECN, Patch and WHDH-TV (Channel 7) in Boston.

In the past, O’Brien’s supporters have been outspoken in their criticism of the Monitor’s editorial policy. Monitor editor Felice Belman said the event was newsworthy and all media should have been allowed to attend. Later Friday, Belman posted a blog update questioning O’Brien’s decision.

“If the speaker holds a press conference in his office, he has the right to invite (or disinvite) whomever he chooses,” Belman wrote. “It’s unclear, however, exactly what he’s accomplished by doing so today. After all, for much of the day, his message was obscured by his invitation list.”

Timmins posted on her Facebook account a video of her being shut out that triggered a mini-online debate among other members of the media.

Pamela Walsh, a senior adviser to the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said her former employer, Gov. John Lynch, did not ban reporters from the Union Leader because of the paper’s conservative editorial policy.

“Although I also have to say I find it a little bit appalling that other reporters kept on going past you. Imagine if we had done that to poor Tom every time we disagreed with a UL editorial?” Walsh asked rhetorically, referring to former Union Leader Statehouse bureau chief Tom Fahey.

Later Walsh posted that Bettencourt was “too harsh” and that reporters were in a “lose-lose” situation because they had to cover the story.

Timmins posted that a major Republican candidate failed to protest the shut out while walking into O’Brien’s event, referring to GOP hopeful Kevin Smith, of Litchfield.

Grant Bosse, a researcher for the conservative Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, said he was shut out of media events held by Lynch and out of the state Senate when Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, was president.

“Did the Monitor ever object to Gov. Lynch or Sen. Larsen excluding reporters whose coverage they disliked?” Bosse tweeted.

Walsh, Lynch’s ex-deputy chief of staff, responded with her own tweet.

“We never excluded – say Union Leader reporters – because we disagreed with editorials, editorial cartoons or stories,” she wrote.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).