Opinion

Opinion: A perspective on Gov. Parson’s unprecedented attacks on journalists

I begin this column with a confession.

We journalists are reluctant to report about ourselves because under journalism ethics, a reporter should avoid covering something in which the reporter has a conflict of interest.

But Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s continuing attacks against news organizations and specific reporters are so unprecedented that I feel compelled to write about it.

His attacks are far beyond any other governor in the one-half century I’ve covered the statehouse.

When Parson was in the Missouri Senate, I found him to be an accessible, candid and very friendly source.

But as governor, something has changed in his relationship with reporters.

An early indication was a November 2020 news conference when Parson refused to allow a question from Missouri Independent Deputy Editor Rudi Keller.

Politicians often refuse to answer questions when they have something to hide. But they usually give an answer to a question that was not asked or just say “I cannot comment.”

In contrast, Parson defended his refusal by attacking Keller’s news organization, citing a false claim that wealthy investor George Soros is a contributor to the parent organization of Missouri Independent, States Newsroom.

“I am not going to respond to a C4 out of Virginia that is absolutely a propaganda agency…This political agenda whether its George Soros or people like him…it’s not fair to Missouri outlets,” Parson told Keller in shutting him off even before Keller could even ask his question.

Guess what, governor, the claim that Soros was a contributor to States Newsroom has been debunked and recently labeled as false by PolitiFact, a fact-checking service of one of journalism’s most respected national organizations, the Poynter Institute.

Besides, States Newsroom is not a federal 501(c)(4) organization but 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is barred from political activity.

By way of background, Soros has become a frequent target of conservatives because of his support for various Democratic candidates.

But the Jewish immigrant from Nazi-controlled and then Communist-controlled Hungary also has been a major champion in promoting development of democracy and journalism in emerging and re-emerging democracies through his Open Society Foundations, to which he has been a major donor.

In full disclosure, one of my international journalism-assistance efforts, in Mongolia in 1999, was financed by an Open Society Foundations grant to journalists in that country who solicited my participation.

It inspired me that unlike so many other international-assistance efforts, his organization gave journalists in the country power to select participants.

As for Parson, just one year later, he launched another media attack threatening criminal charges against a Post-Dispatch reporter for a story that the Education Department was putting Social Security numbers of teachers on the department’s website.

Turns out, as the Post-Dispatch reported, the Education Department sent a proposed quote from the Education commissioner: “We are grateful to the member of the media who brought this to the state’s attention.”

The newspaper even delayed publication of the story for time to fix the problem.

The governor’s latest journalist attack, again involved Missouri Independent’s Rudi Keller for his story accurately reporting that the governor’s administration suppressed Health Department information suggesting that mask mandates helped reduce COVID-19 infections.

In a Twitter rage of 12 tweets in just six minutes, late on the afternoon of Dec. 2, Parson attacked Keller and his story.

Parson’s pattern of attacking journalists and news organizations remind me of President Richard Nixon’s approach dealing with the Watergate scandal, which ultimately ended his presidency.

Keller was one of my journalism students when I directed MU’s State Government Reporting Program.

He was among the best and most ethical reporters I’ve taught. Both his journalistic skills and standards have been demonstrated by his three decades covering Missouri’s statehouse.

Parson’s Twitter rage against Keller reminded me of my own experience when a public official I covered spread slander against me.

It came from Senate Majority Leader Basey Vanlandingham, D-Columbia, who was angered by one of my stories about him.

I was told that his response was to tell his Senate colleagues I was a Leon Trotsky Communist demonstrated by the long hair I had back then.

His attack turned out to be a badge of honor. So many fellow Democrats hated or distrusted Vanlandingham that his attacks against me actually led many of them to become some of my most important Senate sources.

It was one of the many times I’ve found that false and malicious attacks against a reporter or news organization can be empowering.

This commentary by Phill Brooks is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license. Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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