A reporter for West Virginia’s public broadcasting system was fired last month after exposing the state health agency’s abuse of disabled people.
Amelia Ferrell Knisley said she was axed after ignoring orders to stop reporting that the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources was hiding information about treatment of its disabled clients, including allegations of patient dumping and warehousing.
Knisley’s reportage prompted calls by legislative leaders for an official investigation, but, she said, orders to fire her came from the broadcasting system’s boss, Butch Antolini, a former press secretary for Gov. Jim Justice.
It would be easy to dismiss Knisley’s dismissal as an isolated incident in a backward state dominated by self-serving clutch of right-leaning politicians.
Not so. Throughout the world, politicians of all stripes try to control what’s reported about their activities. In autocratic regimes, such as China, Iran or Russia, the suppression is naked. State-owned media spew propaganda and journalists who don’t toe the party line are repressed – or worse.
Four years ago, agents of Saudi Arabia assassinated dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. American journalist Austin Tice was kidnapped in 2012 while reporting on events in Syria and his family has heard nothing from him ever since. In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and later decapitated in Pakistan.
American politicians don’t kidnap or kill journalists, but when a sitting president of the United States points to reporters and calls them “enemies of the people,” as Donald Trump did, he’s making them potential targets of violence.
Newsom’s Naked Disrespect for the First Amendment
Last Friday, Gavin Newsom was sworn in for a second term as California’s governor, standing on the Capitol’s steps after leading a march down Capitol Mall. It was meant to commemorate the violent assault on the nation’s Capitol exactly two years earlier by fervent Trump supporters, seeking to block Congress from ratifying Joe Biden’s election as president.
Newsom devoted much of his 22-minute inaugural address to depicting California as a model of tolerance and freedom and Republican-led states as bastions of repression.
Afterwards, Newsom’s press office described the speech as “lifting up California’s work to protect and advance the fundamental rights and freedoms under attack across the country amid rising extremism and oppression, and underscoring the state’s commitment to continue leading the way forward to prosperity and progress for all.”
The message, however, didn’t ring true for the journalists who were covering Newsom’s carefully staged inaugural celebration because the governor’s operatives had been harassing them for trying to do their jobs.
During the march, Angela Hart, a reporter for Kaiser Health News, tweeted, “@Gavin Newsom leading a march for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy” ahead of his inauguration, however the governor and his team has restricted press access to the march after the photo opp (and) we’re not allowed to follow the march and do our jobs.”
CalMatters reporter Alexei Koseff echoed Hart, tweeting, “Governor’s press office and campaign largely focused on keeping the media away from this media stunt of a march to kick off Newsom’s second inaugural, including threats that we would be blocked from attending the speech.”
This was not an isolated instance of Newsom’s disdain for the professional journalists who cover his governorship. He is notoriously thin-skinned about coverage that portrays him in other than a heroic light – such as Koseff’s revelation in 2020 about his notorious maskless and hypocritical partying with lobbyists at a high-end Napa restaurant.
Newsom’s media operatives give special access to reporters deemed to be friendly while minimizing contact with others who might ask questions that he doesn’t want to answer.
So much for California being a beacon of openness and freedom.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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