Kathy Kiely: Give Missouri Independent a chance to live up to its name
Was the Missouri Independent covering something up Friday?
In the most prominently played story on its website that day, the state’s newest news organization provided a detailed account of the response by Gov. Mike Parson and state Health Director Randall Williams to the alarming spike in COVID cases, their concerns for weary hospital workers and their hopes for a vaccine.
Nowhere in the piece was there a mention of the peculiar attack Parson launched during his press conference, publicly dressing down the reporter who authored it.
That’s because the reporter, Rudi Keller, is a pro. He didn’t let his personal feelings get in the way of delivering the news.
The Independent’s decision to focus on information that has the most immediate impact on readers in the state, even as it was under fire, is admirable.
But a misguided effort to kneecap a media startup before it can get its footing deserves some attention too. In the longer run, it also could have an impact on the people of the state.
Parson’s ambush of the Independent came at the very end of his Thursday press conference, which you can watch on the governor’s official Facebook page (bit.ly/parson-rudi). It starts at the 27:42 mark, and seemed premeditated.
“We’ll take another question,” Parson says, ignoring an aide’s advance warning that the previous one had been the last. He then acknowledges Keller, only to announce “Rudi, I’m not going to answer your question, whatever it is.” Parson proceeds to accuse the veteran journalist of signing on with “a propaganda news agency” that Parson (wrongly) suggests is backed by liberal philanthropist George Soros “or people like him.” Twice, during his remarks, the governor protests that the Independent’s financing is a tax-exempt organization “out of Virginia.” That is also wrong.
Curiously, Parson’s attack on the Missouri Independent coincided with the appearance of a mysterious trolling site that, for a few hours at least, came out at the top of the results page when you Googled “Missouri Independent.” The site, which attacks the Independent and its two most senior reporters as biased, is no longer showing up on Google search but when last I checked, the link was live. I’m not sharing it because, unlike any reputable website, the troll site includes no “about” page, and offers no other way to find out who’s behind it.
The Missouri Independent does have an “about” page. Here are some of the things you can learn from it:
The Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a newly formed network of 19 websites devoted to covering news from the capitals of the states where they are located. The list of donors on the States Newsroom website does not include George Soros but does feature a number of names from the left of the political spectrum, most notably the big labor union AFSCME and some environmental interests
Further online sleuthing reveals that States Newsroom is a tax-exempt nonprofit, headquartered in Chapel Hill, N.C. Because it is less than a year old, it has yet to file its first tax form.
OK, despite having some details crossed up, Parson is not entirely off-base. The money behind the Missouri Independent does appear to have a distinct political bent and the organization behind it is based out of state.
Here’s the dirty little secret: That true of most journalism, but it doesn’t make the journalists biased.
For most of my more than 40 years in the newspaper business, I worked for rich publishers who leaned conservative. Rich people tend to be tax-averse and, hello, you had to be rich (which, for most of my career, meant you had to be white and a guy) to own the printing presses and fleets of trucks it took to produce and deliver the news back in the ink-stained day.
Either because they believed in the immortal words that the Missouri School of Journalism’s founding dean, Walter Williams, penned in his Journalist’s Creed – “the public journal is a public trust” – or, (more likely) because they were shrewd entrepreneurs who understood that the success of their news enterprise depended on its reputation, those rich guys seldom got involved in the editorial content of their publications. In my experience, there was only one glaring exception to that rule. It cost me my best-paying job ever. But I like to think the meddling publisher had to pay a price too.
As to the governor’s concern about out-of-state ownership, welcome to the 21st-century economy of scale. Large corporations whose headquarters are not in Missouri own nearly every major newspaper in the state, including the one for which I am writing this column. Ditto for television. I don’t hear Parson getting finicky about talking to the many TV stations in Missouri owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has been called out for editorial interference.
In the same press conference where he made an issue of the Missouri Independent’s out-of-state ownership, Parson celebrated the decision by another out-of-state company, Amazon, to locate a facility in the state. The long-running feud between the owner of that company and the head of Parson’s party didn’t seem to matter to the governor: He rightly focused on the benefits to the state: 500 jobs
So far, the Missouri Independent has created four jobs in our state but they have outsized significance: Studies by the American Journalism Review and the Pew Research Center have shown that, since the beginning of this century, statehouse news coverage has declined precipitously, thanks largely to the migration of the advertising that used to sustain newsrooms to online platforms.
Under the circumstances, it seems counterproductive to reject an offer by deep-pocketed donors to sew up the holes in the public information safety net. Will some of them come with special interests and political points of view? Inevitably. With publishers — philanthropic or profiteering — it has ever been thus.
There’s no such thing as conflict-free journalism. Professional journalism is transparent about where those conflicts might exist and allows the public to judge whether they’ve tainted the journalism.
On this front, States Newsroom could do better. Compared to the one for Report for America, another nonprofit that’s putting reporters into statehouses, its disclosure page is needlessly coy. Listing donors with first initials, rather than full names, or identifying one as an “undisclosed Virginia foundation” just doesn’t cut it. This not-quite-full disclosure has earned some of the Missouri Independent’s sister sites demerits from the nonpartisan fact-checker, NewsGuard.
Also problematic: Spot checks by my research assistants, MU journalism students Elise Mulligan and Bella Kostolni, turned up a few small donations by some States Newsroom reporters to Democratic campaigns. Memo to young journalists: Don’t give political partisans a reason to reject your requests for an interview
On the other hand, States Newsroom has hired some veteran journalists with impeccable reputations. The crew in Missouri is exemplary. Three of them are graduates of the Missouri School of Journalism, so I’m biased, but I am betting they’ll turn out to be more loyal to the people who read their work than those who sign their paychecks.
At a time when we need more good journalism, not less, I’d ask the governor wait a beat before making up his mind about the new kid on the block: Give the Missouri Independent a chance to live up to its name.
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair for Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely