Embarrassing spectacle at State House

Last modified: 7/10/2012 12:00:00 AM
A few hours after booting Monitor reporters from a press conference at the State House office of Speaker Bill O'Brien last week, his spokeswoman released a written statement that said, "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."

It's hard to know which is more startling: a politician attempting to pick his own press corps or the notion that a politician - or a politician's mouthpiece - gets to decide what constitutes "a responsible media outlet."

Are these people new to this country?

What O'Brien is angry about - still, apparently - is an editorial cartoon published on the Monitor Opinion page more than six weeks ago. It followed an episode on the House floor in which a Republican lawmaker said "Sieg Heil!" to O'Brien in objecting to heavy-handed parliamentary maneuvering by the speaker. The cartoon showed O'Brien as Hitler, with a caption that said, "If the mustache fits . . ."

The kerfuffle capped months of griping from lawmakers of both parties that O'Brien behaves more like a dictator than a speaker. One Republican lawmaker even sponsored a bill to outlaw bullying - a pointed rebuke to her shabby treatment by O'Brien. Another threatened to sue, claiming O'Brien refused to accommodate his disabilities in his seating assignment because of political disagreements.

Just last week, O'Brien yanked the sole House Democrat from a health care committee to prevent an outcome - the expansion of Medicaid coverage - he disapproves of.

But perhaps most dictatorial of all is this attempt to bully the press.

There's nothing requiring O'Brien to let the Monitor into his press conference. But consider the insidious message he is sending: Publish a cartoon that the speaker disagrees with, and he will retaliate by controlling our ability to give our readers the news. Publish something pleasing to the speaker and, presumably, we'll be invited back to the party. Pull our punches on the editorial page, and our news reporters will be rewarded.

Is this what Republicans had in mind when they made O'Brien their leader? Is this what the voters in Mont Vernon were going for? What an embarrassing spectacle.

On Saturday, the Telegraph of Nashua referred to O'Brien as a "schoolyard ninny." Last month, the New Hampshire Union Leader blamed the O'Brien regime for fumbling legislation on school funding and voter ID. "With these two important victories within their grasp, House Republicans chose to lose. Maybe they will learn their lesson and do better next year - if enough of them are still in Concord next year," the paper wrote.

Foster's Daily Democrat of Dover wrote recently that New Hampshire has "suffered under the bullying tactics of House Speaker Bill O'Brien." In May, the Portsmouth Herald summed up O'Brien's caucus this way: "They've lied and they've lied and they've lied."

Will these papers' reporters be punished too?

Of course O'Brien didn't like the Hitler cartoon. But in very same Opinion section the Monitor has published more than a dozen columns by the speaker and his leadership team arguing in favor of their agenda.

The point of a free press is a lively exchange of ideas. In this country, politicians who don't understand that do not deserve reelection.

In picking a fight with the Monitor, O'Brien appeared to have stepped clumsily all over the intended message of his press conference: welfare reform. But if he did it intentionally - creating a bogeyman of the media to gin up voter support - it will likely backfire. Voters aren't looking for politicians to squelch the press. This is not, after all, a dictatorship.


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