Missouri capitol reporters still trying to police their own

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri State Capitol is a very busy place in April as the annual legislative session nears adjournment and lawmakers hawk dozens of bills in frantic attempts to make them law.

Journalists sweat to cover the chaos.

But despite the pressure, the reporters who make up the Missouri Capitol News Association were not too busy to come together again earlier this month to consider problems with one of the press corps’ members, the Missouri Times, a newlyformed organ published by former Poplar Bluff Mayor Scott Faughn.

The press group, which represents about a dozen news organizations that cover state government, had put the Missouri Times on notice in late January that it had to come up with a policy that demonstrated editorial independence while at the same time giving assurances that it was no longer hosting lobbyist-sponsored parties.

While Faughn told the group the parties were a thing of the past, the policy he delivered fell short of expectations. His acknowledgement that a member of the state House had used a sleeping room for lodging in the Missouri Times business office did not add to Faughn’s credibility.

But while one member of the press corps wanted to suspend the Missouri Times from the group, the vast majority agreed to give him more time to come up with a stronger written policy that separates the financial side of the Missouri Times from the reporters who cover the news.

The policy statement that Faughn sent by email on March 30 said, in part, “The newspaper and its staff should be free of obligations to news sources, newsmakers, and outside interests. Conflict of interest should be avoided. Newspapers should accept nothing of value from news sources or others outside the profession. Gifts and free or reduced-rate travel, entertainment, products and lodging should not be accepted.”

Some reporters at Monday’s meeting said the constant use of the word “should” was too weak, and that a blanket prohibition against conflicts, gifts and political activities should be part of the policy. They also said a stronger “firewall” should be demarked between Faughn, who solicits ads and sells subscriptions, and his two reporters who cover the capital.

Question from reporters seemed to reflect a concern that some lobbyists are positioned to influence news coverage.

“If a lobbyist calls you to complain about a story, what do you do?” asked Bob Watson of the Jefferson City News Tribune.

“They do, a lot,” Faughn responded. “I have to read the story to see if they may be right, especially if it’s a factual thing. We won’t put something out that’s incorrect.”

“Is someone who bought a full page ad in the paper more likely to have a story written about them?” asked David Lieb of the Associated Press.

“No,” Faughn responded. “They wouldn’t even know that’s happening.”

“But don’t you assign stories though?” asked Virginia Young of the Post-Dispatch.

“If I get tips,” Faughn replied. “But I don’t assign stories or what to write about them.”

In response to a question from the Columbia Tribune’s Rudi Keller, Faughn admitted that state Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Republican from Springfield, had lodged in a sleeping room at the Missouri Times’ business office in Jefferson City.

“He stayed for a little bit between places, and again it was about two years ago maybe,” Faughn said. “I wasn’t there. He moved on.” Haahr did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The Missouri Capitol News Association, founded in 1988, is responsible for allocating parking spaces near the state Capitol and offices within it for legitimate news organizations. The association’s bylaws state that members must be “editorially independent of any political party, institution, foundation, lobbying entity or business group.”

The association allocated facilities for the Missouri Times shortly after it was formed two years ago by Faughn and former House Speaker Rod Jetton. At that time, Phill Brooks, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and the KMOX radio reporter covering the capital, asked for a written policy describing the Missouri Times’ editorial independence. He has never received an acceptable statement.

During the most recent meeting, Brooks moved that the Times be suspended from the association until it came up with an acceptable ethics policy while still keeping its access to a parking space and office. At stake, Brooks said, was “our credibility as an organization as to whether or not we will uphold the standards we espouse as journalists.”

“I feel like I tried to do what you asked,” Faughn said.

After no one would second Brooks’ motion, the group approved another Young offered that gave the Missouri Times until the end of May to produce “an updated policy that addresses concerns about establishing a firewall between financial activities of the Missouri Times with its sources and the people covering the news.”

The Missouri Times publishes a weekly print product that’s distributed free of charge and makes stories available on an Internet website. Its two reporters are Collin Reischman and Rachael Herndon, whose Republican connections and political activities raised questions during the association’s meeting in January.

Faughn said this week that the problems with Herndon’s independence had been addressed and resolved. “Anybody who works for the Missouri Times cannot be involved in partisan politics,” he said.

Jetton is no longer involved in the publication of the Times. Faughn also owns the SEMO Times in Poplar Bluff and has a show, “This Week in Missouri Politics” on KDNL-TV Channel 30 in St. Louis.

In 2007, Faughn was convicted by a Cape Girardeau County jury of three counts of felony forgery. In that case, he was accused of forging checks for an account for a highway expansion project.

Other journalists at Monday’s meeting represented the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Public Radio, the Missourinet and Politicmo.