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How the Associated Press-NHGOP Controversy Sums Up Republicans’ Distrust in Media

It started with a 139-word story about Kellyanne Conway’s visit last week to speak at a state Republican Party fundraising dinner. Although the event was closed to the press, an Associated Press freelance reporter managed to get in and the NHGOP is not too happy with her or her article, claiming the piece was biased and inaccurate. Now, the incident has spread to right-wing media outlets lambasting the “liberal mainstream media.”

Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, was in Nashua on May 18 as the keynote speaker for the NHGOP’s Spring to Victory fundraiser. Members of the press were told ahead of time that it would be a closed event due to a “mutually agreed upon” decision by the White House and the state party.

Some reporters said they tried to get in to the Radisson Hotel to interview people outside of the room Conway was speaking in, but were told they were not allowed. For AP freelancer Melanie Plenda, she apparently walked in without much trouble.

“I was perfectly prepared, if anyone asked me who was I? Did I have a ticket? Anything like that, I was going to be honest,” Plenda told the New Hampshire Public Radio. “I was going to say no, I’m a reporter and could I speak with an organizer or I would like to get an interview with Ms. Conway. But no one did.”

Plenda said someone who appeared to be a guest invited her into the room, even after she said she didn’t have a ticket.

After the event was over, Plenda filed a four-paragraph story about the event that led with the statement that Conway told attendees to ignore Trump’s critics and the 150-person crowd was “largely friendly.”

“Some people in attendance withheld applause when Conway let loose with snarky comments about Democrat Hillary Clinton,” she wrote in the article.

After it was published, the NHGOP did not hold back from criticizing her for “sneaking” into their event and for misrepresenting the size of the crowd.

“This is an absolute outrage,” said NHGOP spokesman Patrick Hynes to WMUR. “The crowd was wildly enthusiastic in support of Kellyanne Conway’s justified criticism of the atrocious Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.”

He said 430 people attended the event and her report was “grossly inaccurate”and “objectively wrong.”

The AP typically has a State House reporter in New Hampshire. Kathleen Ronayne was their reporter for the past few years, with several freelancers picking up work, but she left this month to run the State House bureau in California. It’s unclear if the AP has hired someone to take her place.

It didn’t stop there, though. The NHGOP blasted out an email on Monday using the incident as an attempt to raise funds for the state party.

“The reporter snuck into our event and misreported on it,” the email read. “She and the Democrats are peddling fake news! Her agenda is to discredit Republicans and we aren’t going to let her write our narrative!”

The email included a screenshot of Plenda’s Facebook post from November where she called for people to resist Trump’s presidency.

“There are a lot of us — roughly more than half to be exact — who said Trump’s vision of the future is not what we want our country to be,” the post reads. “We need to support the ACLU, we need to run for office, we need to oppose legislation that seeks to hurt and further marginalize, we need to join advocacy groups, we need to not be silent.”

Plenda said she regrets the Facebook post, which she has since deleted. She also concedes that she might have been wrong about the crowd size. However, she and the AP are standing by the legitimacy of the story.

“A freelancer covering the NHGOP fundraiser for AP was outside the event when she was invited in by a woman who appeared to be a part of the event,” the AP said in a statement. “AP stands by its reporting. AP standards require employees to refrain from sharing political views in any public forum.”

Due to NHGOP’s efforts to bring awareness to this controversy, it eventually was picked up by other right-wing media outlets, including The Washington Times and even Breitbart.

Plenda said she has now received several threats and emails, including one that said, “We know where you live.”

“Now they’re fundraising off of this, and it’s gone national, and it’s affecting me and my family,” Plenda said. “And I don’t think that is proportional to what they perceived happened.”

Hynes told NHPR that he called attention to the story because the AP at first refused to issue a correction. On Wednesday afternoon, the AP updated the story to indicate they reported the crowd size incorrectly. Breitbart wrote another longer article published Wednesday saying the AP is refusing to “publicly and transparently clarify that its freelance journalist Melanie Plenda did in fact engage in leftwing activism in violation of the newswire’s editorial standards.”

“We want the public to know that there is bad activist reporting happening in New Hampshire and will use all the channels that we can, all the channels we have at our disposal, to get the truth out,” he said.

With the NHGOP’s fundraising email claiming the story is fake news and the conservative national publications picking up the story, it’s becoming fodder for a GOP narrative that the press is biased and can’t be trusted.

A known right-wing blogger in the state dedicated an entire post to the controversy, claiming that the New Hampshire Democratic Party “conned” the reporter into writing a negative article about Trump.

“The reporter is an anti-Trumper who seems to have written that specifically for the Democrats so they could make false claims about the event and Trump’s support in New Hampshire,” the post read. “Because Democrats are trying to paint the picture that Trump is losing support and therefore Republicans are losing support. It appears they are lying, as usual. Rather than try to push their ideas of why they are a better choice than Republicans, they simply keep trying to paint a false picture of Trump and his supporters.”

Trump has criticized the mainstream media for months about being “unfair” and “biased.” It’s what he built his presidential campaign on and what his supporters believe.

According to Gallup, Republicans who say they have trust in the media has plummeted to 14 percent from 32 percent just a year ago. It’s the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years.

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Progressive Outside Groups Weigh In on New Hampshire Voting Rights Bill

Outside groups often funnel money into states during an election, but many New Hampshire residents were probably hoping it would be some time before they again face the onslaught of more political ads. Yet, two progressive groups are currently spending money in New Hampshire, trying to influence how lawmakers decide on a voting rights bill that would tighten the state’s voter ID and registration laws.

The latest group, Let America Vote, made a five-figure digital ad buy in the Granite State at the end of March targeting Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, to change his vote on Senate Bill 3.

Senate Bill 3 was introduced by Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, to address concerns that due to New Hampshire’s “lax” voting laws, people who aren’t living in the state, or are only temporarily here, are voting in New Hampshire elections. Republicans want to tighten the process, but Democrats have dubbed the bill as a form of voter suppression. The Senate passed the bill on March 30 on a party line vote, 14-9, with Avard voting for the legislation.

The bill tackles the complex issue of “domicile” versus “residence.” Under current laws, the definition of domicile is “that place, to which upon temporary absence, a person has the intention of returning.” Republicans think that’s vague and want to make clear who can and cannot vote in the state.

Democrats are pushing the narrative that the bill would prevent college students and military members who are “temporarily” in the state from voting in elections when it’s their right to cast their ballot. That’s the message Let America Vote wants residents to hear, so they can encourage their lawmakers from moving the bill forward.

Republican lawmakers and New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Jeanie Forrester are pushing back, saying it will not stop college students or military members from voting.

Let America Vote is a new group that formed in February 2017 under the leadership of Jason Kander. The former Democratic Senate candidate gave Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt a run for his money in the Missouri Senate race, which was one of the most watched races in the country. Blunt beat Kander — 49.2 to 46.4 percent.

Kander didn’t stay quiet after losing the election, though. With his new organization, he focuses on states that are trying to suppress voting rights.

Let America Vote recently announced they were launching three new voting rights ads in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election, in Virginia to oppose a Republican plan to overturn Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s veto of a bill that would require a photo copy of a state-issued ID included with absentee ballots, and in New Hampshire to oppose SB 3, “which could strip voting rights from college students and would allow elections officers to visit people’s homes to check in on residents just because they voted.”

Kander penned an op-ed for The Nashua Telegraph on Sunday, writing that Republicans are trying to suppress Democratic voters so they can win in future elections.

“For decades, some Republicans across the country have gotten away with passing deliberate voter suppression laws by rebranding them as efforts to fight against voter fraud,” he wrote. “There is more to this agenda than simply suppressing the vote. Not coincidentally, Republicans are pushing this bill just months after New Hampshire Democrats won both a U.S. Senate seat and the presidential vote in the 2016 election. Senate Bill 3 will tip the scales against Democrats where they’ve have won by razor-thin margins.”

Yet, it’s been noted by several right-wing bloggers and members of State House press corp that progressive outside groups seem to be very interested in this bill. New Hampshire Democrats often decry when outside money for Republicans pour into the state, but now, they have publicly applauded these groups focused on voting rights.

Priorities USA, a pro-Democratic group, launched digital ads earlier in March targeting Republican senators on the Election Law Committee to defeat the bill before it went to the Senate.

The ads targeted Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester and Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, both cosponsors of the bill, and Birdsell, author of the bill and chair of the committee.

“Hmmm — liberal Democrats from outside New Hampshire trying to influence the outcome of our democratic process. Sounds familiar,” said NHGOP senior adviser Patrick Hynes to WMUR when Priorities USA launched their ads.

Priorities USA is known nationally for its focus on voting rights. The fundraising arm of the organization, Priorities USA Action, was the top super PAC supporting Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was the main money driver for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign.

The group also said it urged voters to call N.H. House Speaker Shawn Jasper’s office about voting rights.

The bill now moves to the House Election Law Committee, which will hear public testimony again before the bill moves on to the full House for a vote. It can be expected that these outside groups, and possibly others, will also continue their campaign to kill the bill.

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