Missouri publisher’s ethics questioned again in wake of Greitens’ scandal involvement

Analysis

The financial involvement of Missouri Times’ publisher Scott Faughn in the scandal surrounding Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has again raised questions about Faughn’s journalistic ethics and whether he deserves a place among those covering news in the state capital.

Faughn’s name emerged earlier this week, when one of Greitens’ lawyers disclosed that the Republican news site publisher and broadcaster provided $50,000 cash to Al Watkins, a lawyer who was representing the former husband of Greitens’ lover. Faughn, in a 16-minute Twitter explanation on Monday, admitted that he hired Watkins but said it was for a book Faughn planned to write about the 2016 Missouri governor’s race.

Phill Brooks, a veteran state capital broadcast reporter and a former professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said he would again raise the issue of Faughn’s journalistic ethics within the Missouri Capitol News Association. “This just screams that we have to re-examine the Missouri Times membership,” Brooks said.

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 members must be “editorially independent of any political party, institution, foundation, lobbying entity or business group.”

Faughn’s adherence to those standards had been questioned before. Some reporters in Jefferson City attempted to suspend Faughn from the press corps three years ago. Recent events may make them wish even more that they had succeeded. Faughn’s role in the Greitens’ scandal could give ammunition to the governor’s defenders who claim the press has unfairly targeted him.

Faughn’s Missouri Times is a news web site that covers state government news from a conservative perspective. It has reported on Greitens’ troubles without mentioning Faughn’s involvement.

With effective use of self-promotion, Faughn’s public profile has been enhanced by his appearance as a moderator on a weekly television show, “This Week in Missouri Politics.” And although there have been questions about Faughn’s independence and editorial integrity, it hasn’t kept state lawmakers, lobbyists, political reporters and even former Gov. Jay Nixon from appearing on his programs. Faughn is also a frequent guest on a talk show on KMOX radio in St. Louis.

While Faughn has frequently discussed Greitens’ troubles on the air, he has not disclosed his own involvement. On Sunday, he spoke on television with David Barklage, a Republican political consultant, about the impact the Greitens scandal could have on Democrat success at the polls in November.

“Greitens is shooting his own team members,” Barklage said.

“Do you think he ever thought of their being on his team?” Faughn replied. “If the Democrats pick up 20 House seats, I don’t see that moving him at all.”

Faughn did not mention he had delivered money to an attorney involved in the Greitens case.

Faughn did not respond to two written requests for an interview for this story.

On May 14, Greitens is to go on trial on an invasion-of-privacy charge in St. Louis Circuit Court. He is accused of taking a photograph of a partially clothed woman without her consent in the basement of his home during a sexual encounter. The incident occurred in March, 2015, before Greitens, a Republican, was elected.

Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who boasted of his commitment to integrity and family values, has admitted having an affair with the woman. She has not been identified beyond being his hair stylist. The governor has refused to answer questions about whether he took the photograph and has refused to appear before a special state House investigating committee, which has accepted as credible the woman’s account of what happened.

Watkins has represented the woman’s husband, whose secretly-taped confession of his then-wife provided some evidence of what happened. The tape provided the basis for the entire scandal to become public in January when Lauren Trager of KMOV-TV reported it shortly after Greitens admitted the affair.

Brooks said the latest disclosures made it appear that Faughn funneled money to an agent who was involved in trying to remove the Missouri governor from office. “And his turning around and reporting about it and talking about it as a journalist and failing to disclose his financial involvement is one more sign of his violating journalistic ethics,” Brooks said. “You have a conflict of interest, and you should disclose it or recuse yourself from the story.”

If Faughn provided the $50,000, it would represent a remarkable improvement in his financial fortunes. Just two years ago, the Gateway Journalism Review reported how Faughn and two of his publications, the Missouri Times and SEMO Times, owed more $17,000 on overdue bills for state taxes and commercial printing, according to creditor lawsuits filed recently in Cole County Circuit Court.

When James Martin, one of Greitens’ lawyers, identified Faughn as the source of the $50,000, he suggested that Faughn had political ties to a group “upset that their tax credits were taken away,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The newspaper also reported that one of sponsors of “This Week in Missouri Politics” was a bank that was involved in the low-income housing tax credit business. Greitens and the Missouri Housing Development Commission voted last year to curtail the use of tax credits in the financing of projects.

Greitens also faces charges that his political campaign illegally used a donor list from his former charity, “The Mission Continues.” More than a year ago, David Lieb of the Associated Press reported the problems with the charitable donors’ names showing up among Greitens’ campaign contributors.

Faughn describes himself as “a white trash hillbilly from west Butler County.” He is the former mayor of Poplar Bluff. 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.

With no journalistic training and no experience in political reporting, Faughn and former Missouri House Speaker Rod Jetton launched the Missouri Times in 2013. Jetton’s affiliation has since ended. When the press corps in Jefferson City first accredited the Missouri Times, there were questions about its editorial independence.

Two years later there were reports that a Missouri Times’ reporter was involved in Republican Party politics and lobbyists were paying for parties at the news organization’s headquarters. Faughn acknowledged then that a Republican member of the state House had used a sleeping room for lodging in the Missouri Times business office.

At that time Brooks tried to suspend Faughn’s organization from the capital news organization saying “our credibility as an organization as to whether or not we will uphold the standards we espouse as journalists” was at stake. He was unsuccessful.

On the website of the Missouri Times, Faughn claims he is a member of the St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The code also says journalists should “refuse gifts” and shun “political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”

As of Wednesday, there was no reporting of Faughn’s involvement in the payment to Watkins on the Missouri Times website. There is no indication the two reporters–Benjamin Peters and Alisha Shurr–whose bylines regularly appear on the Missouri Times’ website, were involved in Faughn’s payment to Watkins. And there are those who appreciate the news that appears on the Missouri Times website.

“I definitely read the Missouri Times because it always has detailed reports on what’s going on in the capital,” said Michael Berg, an organizer for the Sierra Club, an environmental organization. “It’s a very useful tool. I would not say it’s unbiased, but that’s not to say it’s not useful.”

Terry Ganey formerly covered state government and politics for the Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Columbia Daily Tribune. He is also a member and volunteer for the Sierra Club.