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What It Was Like Being a Media Member at the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia

"They managed our presence in a way I’d never experienced before. Frankly, it felt a bit like I was a journalist being followed by the CCP," noted photojournalist Zach Roberts.
Photo by Pat LaMarche.

With additional reporting by Zach D. Roberts

Moms for Liberty has an agenda. 

This past week they wanted publicity – though it appeared they didn’t understand that inviting the press meant entertaining our questions and at least feigning transparency. No doubt taking their lead from one of their largest donors, the reactionary Leadership Institute, the M4L press team didn’t know what to do when the media arrived.

As a member of the press, invited by Calvary Strategies on behalf of the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors National Summit, I journeyed to Philadelphia in advance of Independence Day to report for the Bucks County Beacon.

When the staff members of Calvary Strategies approved my credentials, I admit to a certain amount of shock. As a journalist I’ve worked for many left leaning outlets – most notably those owned by horror novelist and well-known progressive, Stephen King.

After checking in at the downtown M4L summit registration on the fourth floor of the Marriott, I started interviewing people. I spoke with security guards (they were legion), as well as conference attendees who explained that they’d been in sessions all day.  Surprising, because the press hadn’t been notified of any breakout sessions prior to press registration. I also interviewed others staying at the Marriott unrelated to the moms event, but significant in their own right. I was there – as a journalist – to find and report stories, so that’s what I did.

While getting my press pass, I asked for access to the smaller events – the break out sessions. I explained that as a local reporter, I didn’t care much about the celebrities in town. Our focus would be the grass roots of the organization. Marleigh Kerr, one of the staff people for Cavalry, told me, “No.” But, that I might try asking again in the morning.

Later that evening, I wrote to all the representatives of Calvary Strategies (all four of them) and asked for access to certain conference events.

Friday morning, Calvary acquiesced and agreed to escort me and a colleague, Zach Roberts, to a conference about sexuality and sexualization. (Not the one we wanted, but we were still intrigued).

I recorded the session, took photos and texted those photos and quotations made by the speaker, on the spot, to my editor – who tweeted them out in real time.

When the lecture by Kelly Schenkoske ended – a lecture without adequate citation or substantiation to pass journalistic muster – and following a question-and-answer period riddled with even more unchallenged and baseless claims, I followed some of the attendants and Schenkoske into the hallway and asked to interview them.

Not a single person I asked for an interview turned me down.

Within an hour of interviewing Schenkoske and another participant, school board candidate Dawn Henderson, I learned that I might be barred from other sessions. Not long after that – I found I had been banned for the day. Cavalry’s representatives would not confirm whether or not I’d been banned for the entire event. Hoping for an opportunity to do my job, I stayed.

The following day, other reporters told me that they’d been informed that journalists acting like the Bucks County Beacon would likewise be banned. 

The following is an account by photojournalist Zach Roberts:

I was there as a wire photographer. I’d originally planned to just take photos and video at the summit, and sell my work to agencies that needed audio or video to accompany their work.

When I realized M4L was livestreaming the ballroom – and that the big wire services (Getty/AP/NYT) were all doing the same – I knew I couldn’t recover the large investment I’d made attending the summit. I needed to get into the break out sessions, to garner material I could sell. Small breakout rooms with local activists and organizers were the one way that my coverage might get used.

Those who work behind the scenes lecturing the M4L accolades may not have a national name, but as M4L and its affiliated groups expand, other media sources will want photos and video of these people. Most of my work depends on this sort of long term investment. I archive the footage and sell it as needed.

 From the get go, Calvary Strategies misinformed us about what our access might be. Early in the morning on the first day they told me to list the rooms I wanted to go to and I’d be escorted – so long as one of their  three media relations people were available. Kerr told Pat that more than one hundred members of the media had passes to the event. But Calvary had only three liaisons!

They managed our presence in a way I’d never experienced before. Frankly, it felt a bit like I was a journalist being followed by the CCP. I acquiesced in exchange for access. I would follow their rules (although initially they had none – with the exception of being escorted by a handler). I talked with fellow journalists about this and several of us, (Pat included) wanted to go to “Mastering the Spin: Effective Messaging Strategies” led by Christian Ziegler

We were denied access to the “spin”event – instead they took us to “Comprehensive Sex Education: Sex Ed or Sexualization” hosted by Kelly Schenkoske. At the time, we didn’t know that 0ur minder, Melissa Stone, was CEO of the company. We were told we could record, take still photos and notes throughout the session.

Sometime after that session ended, I was told that they couldn’t make the second session happen, knowing that I had another day here, I didn’t make a big fuss. Pat was told she may not be allowed ever again.

After Calvary shunned her on Friday, Pat kept her distance from me and a group of our friends, including media of various backgrounds. She supposed that she might have been the reason M4L denied us access. (She was in fact doing her job).

On Saturday, several journalists again requested access to Jordan Adams conference, “The First Hundred Days: Getting Flipped School Boards to Take Action at 2:15 p.m. Instead we were promised a 10:15 a.m. conference of their choosing – without specifying which one. We waited, and waited. Even after the breakout session started, no escort arrived. Our small group of journalists got a bit irritated. Pat again offered to leave the group. Soon after she left, our minder brought the rest of us on an elevator and as the door closed Melissa asked “Is everyone here? Is Bucks here?”

We looked around and shook our heads. “Ok, let me lay out the ground rules.” No one may go live from the breakout session (none of us did), no disparaging the speakers or attendees on Twitter (none of us did), and no asking questions in the breakout session (again, none of us did). The doors of the elevator opened and we were escorted to the room where the session was already well under way. 

We entered a session hosted by Billboard Chris. Popular in M4L circles, he’s an anti-trans activist who sponsored a billboard that read “I [heart] JK Rowling.” Not surprisingly vandalized, Billboard Chris transformed this into an attack on his freedom of speech. The beginning of  his hero’s journey harassing people.

Within eleven minutes of gaining access to his talk, Chris finished his speech. As the next speaker prepared to present, the PR rep asked us to leave. We had been granted eleven minutes to get a sense of what M4L was all about. 

We weren’t allowed to hear the questions that were asked in the room, or the responses. We were not allowed into any other break out sessions. The only representative we had access to – after they jettisoned Pat – had been a little known bigot who harasses people at Pride events and on college campuses.

M4L will, and already has, claimed martyrdom over the press coverage of the group and this conference. “We’re just moms! Why does the media hate moms who are just trying to get involved with their kids’ schools?” 

Their media handlers censored us and expelled competent reporters when they tried to do their job. Based on what we were allowed to cover – the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of M4L as an extremist group is not incorrect.

Since they censored us, I have had time to research Cavalry Strategies – the agency handling the press. Unfamiliar with the portion of the first amendment that provides for “freedom of the press” – it appears that they rely more heavily on their crisis management skills. In this case, for crises of their own making.

I consulted Robert Bradshaw, a crisis management consultant who got his start with the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middleton, Pennsylvania. Bradshaw’s list of experience includes mass casualty shooting events, natural disasters, and once in a lifetime calamities.

When asked if he’d ever managed a political action conference, he replied, “A crisis management team wouldn’t get involved in something like that. Crisis management is supposed to be holistic – dealing with situations in which you protect people and property, controlling organizational risk. If you’re protecting brand, you’re doing crisis public relations.”

His conclusion: “The company’s website appears one dimensional. I don’t see crisis response material on their website.” Bradshaw’s own resume includes the organizing American Airlines response to flight 77, when terrorists flew into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Calvary Strategies – whose corporate tagline is “Call in the Cavalry” – attempted to protect M4L’s brand by censoring the press. CEO Melissa Stone may have learned the tactic while serving as chief of staff for then Florida Governor Rick Scott. She’s recently been named to the Florida Commission on the Status of Woman by his successor, Gov. Ron DeSantis.Stone and her few employees will no doubt continue helping M4L control their brand, by luring presidential candidates to draw the press – and then censoring them when they attempt to do their jobs. M4L wanted free publicity and they got plenty of it. But for a few of us – they also got exposed as – once again – anti-First Amendment. Anti-Liberty.

Support progressive, independent media.

Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche is a freelance journalist and author. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband. Pat has written nine books on poverty and homelessness.

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