Category Archives: Blogs

Former P-D editorial writer’s Facebook challenge to Rep. Wagner on Obamacare @STLinquiry

by Eddie Roth

As I sit down to write this piece mid-February, top news organizations are reporting a potential watershed in the years-long march by Republicans in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature national healthcare program, also known as Obamacare.

Except this time, things are different. The GOP controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. Votes no longer are theater offered to placate the political base. Rather, the votes likely will result in grave consequences to millions of people, including hundreds of thousands in the St. Louis community who depend on Obamacare for access to healthcare.

Repeal efforts now sit menacingly off-shore, like a tropical storm steadily gaining hurricane strength. Its precise path remains uncertain. It may move out to sea. But should it make landfall at full strength, it may devastate the lives of many.

At least that’s how Obamacare repeal should be covered as news. Such coverage should reflect the impending crisis of a potentially deadly storm. It should be the lead daily news story. Reporters should press responsible local officials and community leaders for details and constant updates on contingency plans – focusing attention on those who have the greatest capacity and responsibility to protect the public.

That’s how I have been trying to cover it at my modest social media page on Facebook – “The Office of Special Inquiries and Reports | @STLinquiry,” a page devoted to “timely, independent, non-partisan investigation and analysis of St. Louis questions & controversies.”

Repeal not inevitable

Repeal of Obamacare and resulting hardship are not inevitable.

Enrollment is measured in the tens of millions and has driven down numbers of the uninsured to historic lows. The program’s advent has coincided with one of the nation’s longest sustained periods of job growth. The rate of healthcare costs, meanwhile, has slowed to an extent that actuaries calculate significant savings to entitlement programs.

But not everything about Obamacare has worked out well. Participation of private health insurers has been uneven, market to market. Premiums have risen and become unaffordable to some people who earn too much to be eligible for subsidies.

Political opponents of the Affordable Care Act have seized on these shortcomings and, rather than work to correct them, have done all within their power to undermine the program and poison its reputation in the minds of the public. Many now claim Congress must act to “repeal and replace” because the program is in a “death spiral.”

Still, in the early weeks of the new Congress, practical action to repeal Obamacare has not matched the bloody-shirt political brio. The Obamacare killers have been slow to get out of the gate. Repeal and replace strategies of Congressional Republican leaders have been met with resistance and worry among some of within the Republican caucus who understandably think eliminating Obamacare could cause a major political backlash as millions of Americans lose access to health care.

Impact of repeal on St. Louis residents

Should repeal come, it likely will come suddenly. It will be hustled through with a series of late night votes shrouded in an opaque cloud of alternate facts.  Thus, news organizations should sound an alarm. Conventional news gathering approaches provide many opportunities to do so. I have marshaled data describing the scope of risk to this community, such as by noting, county-by-county, congressional district-by-congressional district, where for the more than 100,000 St. Louisans enrolled in Obamacare reside.

I have explained how sudden loss of health insurance at that scale would look (It is about the same number of people as are employed at BJC (24k), Boeing (15k), Washington University (14.5k), Scott AFB (13.k), Enterprise (6.8k), Express Scripts (6.4k), Monsanto (5.4k), Wells Fargo (5.3k), Edward Jones (5.2k), AB-InBev (4k), and then some, combined).

I have written and linked to information about potential long-term damage to the well being of hundreds of thousands of other St. Louisans who have health insurance but who suffer from or are at risk of chronic disease, and whose access to healthcare, even under high-quality employer provided insurance, depends on Obamacare protections that prohibit insurers from excluding coverage for pre-exisiting conditions and lifetime caps on coverage amounts.

I have tried to define the economic stakes to a community whose local economy has such a high concentration of healthcare related business enterprises, starting with world class hospitals and medical research.  I also have tried to introduce my “small but influential” readership to key local players – people this community will be counting on to help avert disaster.

My focus has been on U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner. I have coined my Obamacare coverage as the #TheAnnWagnerProject. Ms. Wagner is the most influential House member representing the St. Louis region. She is a part of Republican House leadership. Under my #stormwatch metaphor, she’s the equivalent of the St. Louis region’s director of Emergency Management with direct responsibility for protecting the community from potentially disastrous effects of Obamacare repeal.

I regularly email Ms. Wagner’s press secretary. I request information on her plans for “repeal and replace” legislation. I seek comment from Ms. Wagner on steps she plans to take to ensure the St. Louis region is protected.  So far I have received no reply, not even an acknowledgement.

But as part of my coverage, I also have reviewed Ms. Wagner’s Federal Election Commission campaign contribution disclosures. I have sought to identify contributors well known in the community and with reputations for thoughtful moderation in civic matters. I have written to a number of Ms. Wagner’s campaign contributors, inviting their comment on the community stakes involved in Obamacare repeal and what community consultation they would like to see from Congressional leaders such as Ms. Wagner.

Dr. Danforth’s response

One of Ms. Wagner’s most significant campaign contributors, Former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth, accepted the invitation.   Danforth graduated from Harvard Medical School, received his medical training at Barnes Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital and, since 1967, has been a professor of internal medicine at Washington University Medical School. He has served as Vice Chancellor of Medical Affairs and president of Washington University Medical Center. From 1971 to 1995, he was Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

In a letter to me, Dr. Danforth wrote:

“You asked for thoughts on national health insurance that might be helpful in talking with Congresswoman Ann Wagner. My reply is probably different from others you might receive.”

“To start with, insurance for health care is very complicated. Health care is complicated with steadily advancing technologies, changing diseases, aging population, evolving private coverage, varying rates of employment, new diseases, new therapies and better prevention.”

“An objective look would conclude that financing health care in the United States has been improved by Obamacare; expenditures have risen slower than expected. Nevertheless, it is clearly imperfect, but to improve it will be hard and complex with possibilities for many mistakes. To throw Obamacare away rather than to learn from it and try to improve it would show very bad judgment, probably cause major decline in insured Americans and add to the burdens, likely including costs of disease.”

“The problem is that there is no tested alternative plan, perhaps no alternative plan at all. To try to write a new plan is risky and likely to be worse. A politicized Congress is the wrong place to try to devise alternatives. Congress could better decide the amount of money it is willing to spend on the health of the American people and then charge a panel of experts of various persuasions to develop the best improvements they can. The plan could allow states to experiment. The panel should also recommend a time to review it. One should not be thrown off by complaints; there are bound to be some. Complaints should be taken seriously, analyzed and used to help in future improvements.”

“Humans learn to improve complex systems by having people argue, debate, compromise and never stop trying to adjust it and make it better. No person or group can do it once and for all. What are necessary are imagination, trust, trial and error and patience. That is the way humans develop their best arrangements.”

“I hope these thoughts are helpful.”

Impact of local news coverage

Local news coverage can have an impact on impending Obamacare repeal, but only if it focuses sharply on local effects and if it pointedly brings accountability to local leaders. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not following St. Louis needs or sentiment regarding access to health care. Neither is House Speaker Paul Ryan.

But both would be interested in what U.S. Rep. Wagner has to say. Wagner’s party cannot ignore her if she puts loyalty to this community ahead of loyalty to her party on access to healthcare. Wagner’s campaign contributors, in turn, bear a special responsibility for the leadership she exercises – or fails to exercise. They are fair game for news coverage in an impending crisis. That’s because repeal of Obamacare is life-and-death matter for this community. Urgent and sustained local news coverage of local people of influence may determine whether ordinary St. Louis voices – those who stand to lose the most – are heard in Washington.

St. Louis Media History Foundation Hall of Fame event is Saturday

ST. LOUIS, March 15, 2017 — The St. Louis Media History Foundation, a nonprofit organization that researches and compiles artifacts and memorabilia related to the St. Louis area’s rich media history, will hold its 2017 Hall of Fame dinner and induction ceremonies on Saturday, April 15, 2017, at the St. Louis City Center Hotel downtown, 400 South 14th Street, near Scottrade Center.

The dinner and ceremonies will begin at 5:30 p.m. There will be a cash bar and free indoor and outdoor hotel parking for attendees.

Tickets for the dinner entrees — Grilled Salmon with a Citrus Orange Gastrique, Sautéed Chicken Picatta in a White Wine Caper Sauce, or a vegetarian Eggplant Stack — will be $55 for individuals or $550 for a table of 10.

Tickets can be purchased in advance through Eventbrite, or at the door. Discounted hotel rooms for guests also are available through the St. Louis City Center Hotel. Rooms must be reserved by March 31.

  • John Beck – Senior Vice President of Emmis Communications, who oversees all four Emmis radio stations in St. Louis: KSHE, KIHT, KPNT, and KFTK. He’s been general manager of KSHE since 1984.
  • Jim Brady – Pioneering news director at KTVI-TV. He later held the same position at KMOX Radio before becoming executive secretary of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners.
  • Dennis Clancy, Art Dwyer, Ron Edwards, John McHenry, and Tom “Pappa” Ray – Jazz/blues producers for listener-supported KDHX when the station began broadcasting in 1987.
  • Peggy Cohill – Executive producer of “The Charlie Brennan Show” on KMOX Radio, and a program producer at that station for more than 40 years.
  • Jack Dorsey — @jack is a computer programmer and internet entrepreneur, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, and founder and CEO of Square, a mobile payments company.
  • Bob Dotson – Emmy-winning correspondent for NBC News, where he spent 40 years, including 25 with “The Today Show.” He’s a six-time recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for news writing.
  • Mary Edwards – Senior producer of KWMU-FM/St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air” call-in program and its live broadcasts of the St. Louis Symphony. She has been with the station since 1974, and has been responsible for helping to shape KWMU’s innovative programming.
  • David Erich – Public relations executive for several St. Louis-area companies, including Pepsi and United Van Lines. He was the first ad executive for Six Flags when it opened in 1971.
  • Dan Forrestal – Longtime public relations executive with Monsanto who helped guide the company’s communications strategy as it maneuvered from a chemical company into one of the world’s leading agricultural companies. He also mentored many communications practitioners throughout his career.
  • Don Francois – Pioneering TV engineer who helped launch KACY-TV, one of the first UHF stations in St. Louis. He later helped other local stations transition from black-and-white to color broadcasts.
  • Margaret Wolf Freivogel – Award-winning St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and editor. She also was founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a non-profit digital news startup that merged with KWMU-FM/St. Louis Public Radio in 2013.
  • Roy Harris – A Post-Dispatch reporter from 1926 to 1967, Harris won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for investigating election fraud in Illinois. He also helped the newspaper win three other Pulitzer Prizes in 1937, 1941, and 1948.
  • Rick Hummel – Longtime St. Louis Cardinals beat writer for the Post-Dispatch, Hummel – nicknamed “The Commish” — is a former president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, a J.G Taylor Spink Award recipient in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
  • Sid Savan – A major figure in St. Louis advertising, Savan also was a longtime instructor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His Savan Advertising also helped many ad execs get their start.
  • Clarissa Start – Gardening columnist for the Post-Dispatch from 1938 to 1972. Her column was serialized in Ladies Home Journal. After retirement, she wrote her column for another 30 years.
  • Jack Thorwegen – Co-founder in 1985 of the Zipatoni marketing firm, known for its creative work. His Proof Agency, founded in 2014, helps craft brewers and distillers compete against larger rivals.

The St. Louis Media Hall of Fame has recognized St. Louisans who have made a major contribution, in their work here or elsewhere, to their respective media in four different fields: Radio, Print, Television, and Advertising/Public Relations.

The Foundation also maintains an exhibit at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, 3524 Russell Avenue, in South St. Louis. Admission is free. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

The Foundation accepts tax deductible contributions to develop and expand its St. Louis media history collection, its website, local archives and repositories, oral histories, and the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. For more information, visit the foundation’s Facebook page or www.stlmediahistory.com.

‘Truth did not die,’ Garrett tells GJR audience

compiled for GJR

What is new … right now … is after years of Americans wondering if journalism matters … we have a renewed fascination and curiosity about what journalism is, what it does and what are the ethical and professional obligations upon which it stands.

The audience … hasn’t been this curious, this attentive in years. What will government do? What are the checks and balances? What are the institutional levels of power? How will the elegant system of co-equal branches of government the founders bequeathed us function amid the unpredictability of a Trump presidency? The stakes feel high and real and vivid. And they are.

Time magazine asked this week if truth is dead? It asked if god was dead in 1966…. God was no deader then than he or she is now. Neither is truth. Did truth die when John Adams signed the alien and sedition act? Did it die during the 19th century when politicians large and small bought newspapers, reporters and editorials like so many trinkets? Did it die during teapot dome or when robber barons tried to turn government into a clearinghouse for greed and corruption? Did it die during the cold war, during Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra, Bill Clinton’s impeachment or Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction?

Truth did not die… because the search for it did not perish. Truth may have been delayed… but it was not denied. The question is not whether truth is dead … but will the search for it ever die. I say on behalf of journalism and the first amendment … never … not ever.

Asia media examine Trump: The view from China

by Lu Fan

“Messy.” That’s the best word to describe coverage of Donald Trump in the Chinese media. As the new president acts so differently from his predecessors and has attracted so much public attention in China during the presidential campaign, media here spare no efforts to cover all the details of Trump – everything from his political moves to the golden curtains in his office. The following demonstrate a range of views of Chinese media on Trump’s first “messy” month.

China in his imagination

According to the U.S. media, Trump called China “grand champions” of currency manipulation. This statement caused great concern among Chinese media. An article form Global Times, a publication of the People’s Daily, says: “He almost talks about China out of his own imagination. It looks like he does not know the actual currency policy of China or the direction or aim of China managing foreign currency.”

The resignation of Michael Flynn

An analytical article from Global Times argues that the resignation of National Security Adviser Flynn decreases the authority of Trump as a new president. “All facts prove that it is hard for Trump to be a tough president … it is difficult for his personalities to become the collective attitude and action of the U.S. system. The cost of him promoting his political orders could be the highest in history.”

The winner of Trump-media war goes to…

The protracted war between Trump and the U.S. media has attracted the attention from the world, including Chinese media. The news and analysis of the relationship between media and Trump outnumber those of any previous U.S. president.

Several articles say one of the reasons Trump is confident railing against the media is that the U.S. media are not financially healthy, and thus vulnerable and easy targets. Another reason is that the U.S. public no longer trusts its media as it once did. Although the U.S. media are sometimes seen as being partisan, such partisanship became extreme in the past presidential campaign. And such partisanship damages the objectivity and credibility of the U.S. media.

Anbin Shi, a professor and associate dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University, recently published an article in Global Times, saying, “Trump’s declaration of war on mainstream media is a critical move to break the political game of the elites. But the outcome of the war is that he and media both win. The public’s interest in mainstream media increases, the responsibility of media supervising (government) and filter (information) also increases … do not forget that Trump is an astute businessman … the ‘war’ might be a strategy of compromising with the mainstream.”

Another article from Guancha.cn speculates that the war between Trump and media is actually a show paid by the public since more people are reading or watching mainstream media, so the “CNNs” are happy to be under attack. But how long such a win-win status could be maintained is up to the public.

Some media similarly think that no matter which party loses this war, it will bring a heavy strike to the U.S. system and the public.

And finally…

Regarding all the mess during the first month of Trump’s administration, some Chinese media say it is the result of Trump trying too hard. He considers himself “a revolutionist” and hopes to do something different without good strategies, which leads to brutal action and policy in controversy, in the view of Chinese journalists.

While criticizing Trump for trying too hard, some Chinese media also try too hard to attract readers. In many news headlines of the White House keeping some media outside from a news briefing, “briefing” was substituted with “press conference,” which is apparently more dramatic and easy to attract attention, but is misleading for those readers who only look at headlines without reading the whole story.

Asia media examine Trump: The view from South Korea

by Jin Lee

South Korean journalism is paying less attention to international affairs due to seriousness of the political scandal in South Korea.

Still, however, journalists here are covering the United States under Donald Trump’s presidency. This is not just because of the bonds between the U.S and South Korea, but because of the status of the US as the world-leading country in the economy and international politics.

As President Trump continues to sell the “American First” idea since his presidential campaign, however, many countries have expressed discomfort about Trump being president. South Korea is no exception. As much as many South Korean citizens are unhappy about Trump because of his enforced immigration policy and hostile attitude to non-white foreigners, the way South Korean journalism covers Trump administration is unfavorable.

Such concerns were initiated after Trump signed an executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen). Trump’s immigration policy has sparked a fierce debate in South Korean media over racism and global citizenship, which made not only those listed countries but also the rest of world puzzled, worried, and even threatened. South Korean media have seriously criticized the order, seeing several subsequent cases as being unfair to South Korea.

One case occurred Feb. 11 in Koreatown, Los Angeles, when a Caucasian woman attacked an 83-year-old Korean yelling “white power” before fleeing. This news has spread by social media. Los Angeles police have so far not apprehended the woman.

And on that same day a South Korean solo traveler was detained in Honolulu where his connecting flight to NYC was scheduled. The traveler said, not only was he barred from entering the country with no reason at the immigration checkpoint, but also that he was forced to say he had been illegally employed in the U.S., although he never had worked in America. His request to contact South Korea Embassy was reportedly denied by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Honolulu, and he subsequently was deported. South Korean news media covered both cases, saying “With the enactment of Trump’s executive order, possible unfavorable treatment to South Koreans may be happening.”

In addition to increasing concerns about South Korean citizens’ safety in the U.S., South Korean news media also are anxious about security on the Korean Peninsula. The Feb. 10 meeting between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe provoked such anxiety. North Korea staged a ballistic missile test that day while Trump and Abe were playing golf in Florida. They quickly voiced their concerns about North Korea.

“I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent,” Trump said. South Korean media reported, “given his statement, U.S. under Trump seems to consider neither South Korea nor peace on the Korean Peninsula at all.”

South Korean media appear concerned that diplomatic relations between the US and South Korea have been changing after the inauguration of Donald Trump. The media coverage of international politics – mainly about the U.S. – is enough to trigger concerns and fears about security in South Korea among South Koreans.

Media here report that as Trump argues for a more protectionist American economic plan, many South Korean companies, such as Samsung and LG, will likely to encounter difficulties in their business with the U.S. In addition to the unfavorable immigration policy or attitude in the U.S., the security and economy of South Korea might be in trouble under Trump administration, many news media say.

While South Korean legacy media continue to produce news in a “South Korea in crisis” format under the Trump administration, new media, including Twitter, are full of cat images. One tweet in Korean reads, “After the 2016 presidential election, now the world, all we’ve got to do is upload pictures of cats and dogs.” Another twit in Korean says similarly, speaking to U.S. Twitter users, “Hey America, now you will understand why we only upload cat pictures. Soon your tweets will be full of pictures of cats.”

Some tweets directly mention a “world gone crazy.” By doing so, new media full of cat images seem to ridicule current politics. Those images of cats on Twitter do not just say “cats are so adorable.” Rather, by posting memes of cats that tease their owners or modifying cat images to make fun of human beings, Twitter users seem to enjoy the humor of the current political crisis.

It is no coincidence that funny memes of world leaders, including those of South Korean President Geun-Hye Park, North Korean President, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, are posted together with those cat memes on Twitter. Uploading funny pictures is a way new-media users here can temporarily escape current political and international crises. Through cat memes, Twitter users deride people in general. Through humorous images of presidents Park and Trump, they also blame the “stupidity” of politicians who were supposed to do their best for the better world, but instead cause bitter conflicts in the world.

Separating the forest from the trees in the age of Trump

by Aaron S. Veenstra

Last year’s Academy Award-winner for best picture, Spotlight, received justifiably widespread acclaim for its portrayal of the indelible role of enterprise journalism in maintaining a society in which the weak may confront the strong.

Specific to its dramatization of journalism, there are two key insights that are easy to lose track of in the film’s narrative. The first is that, while presented and celebrated as a story of heroic journalism challenging and taking down a corrupt institution, it’s more a story of journalistic failure than anything else. The story of systemic abuse of children by Catholic priests wasn’t just something that “everybody” knew about, which tends to be the short version of the backstory. Rather, it’s something the Boston Globe knew about years before the early 21st century reporting that ultimately became “the story.”

This is a key plot point that occurs more than once in the film – victims and their advocates hesitant or unwilling to trust the news organization that dismissed them in the past.

That lack of trust is intimately related to Spotlight’s second big hidden element: the link between individual units and systems. This comes up in two important ways. Most directly connected to the trust question, the sources being interviewed by the reporters don’t see those reporters as being an almost entirely different group from the people who failed to follow up on their tips in the past. The only member of the Spotlight reporting team to have seen that previous information was Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who had been the Globe’s city editor.

And yet, all the reporters are told, “you” were sent this information years ago. The “you” in question here isn’t the individual journalists; it’s the Globe as an institution, from which they are inseparable and for which they are responsible. From inside the institution, it’s easy to object and say that was somebody else’s mistake; from outside, the institution is a forest, and the trees indistinguishable.

But if the public is too likely to see only the system, reporters’ bias pulls them the other way, toward episodic stories that too often don’t link together to tell the bigger story beyond the individual events. In Spotlight, the one person who sees this is the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), now at the Washington Post.

What makes this more than just an interesting story note is seeing Baron’s name pop up in a piece about Post reporter David Fahrenthold’s tenacious pursuit of Donald Trump’s bogus foundation. Fahrenthold had begun reporting on Trump’s promised donation to veterans groups (this fundraiser was the reason he gave for skipping a debate right before the Iowa caucuses), which had not materialized, and which, like most of Trump’s promises, the rest of the campaign press corps had completely forgotten about.

This is a story worth digging into on its own, but Baron suggested going further: “The logic was that Trump had just tried to wiggle out of a charitable promise he’d made on national TV. What, Marty wondered, had he been doing before the campaign, when nobody was looking?”

These different reporting styles map reasonably well to the concepts of episodic and thematic framing in the scholarly literature. Too, an over-reliance on episodic reporting is probably as much to blame for the Globe’s failure as are the social biases that would keep Boston reporters from seeing systemic corruption in the Catholic Church.

Episodic reporting and the thought processes that lead to it allow an event to be a one-off, with baseline assumptions reset the next time the reporter encounters a similar pattern. It means presuming good faith on the part of those being reported on.

More systematic story-framing needed

The potential trouble here is obvious. Unscrupulous actors can and frequently do game this type of reporting. It is happening right now with coverage of Trump’s tweets. Coverage that simply repeats what he tweets, and makes the story the fact of him saying something, does not allow for examination of broader patterns in his statements that have slowly been picked up by fact-checkers, for example. This sort of thinking also permeates campaign coverage, and especially post-election coverage, that uses candidate characteristics to explain outcomes, rather than the broader, macro-level fundamentals that political scientists use to model elections. Many fundamental-based models suggested a narrow Trump win this year.

Although some of the individual stories in the Globe’s and Post’s respective reporting might be written in thematic frames that highlight general concepts over specific instances, this type of framing doesn’t fit the conflict as well as episodic framing fits the other side. Instead, this may be considered systematic framing, occurring across stories and manifesting through linkages used to explain truths that can’t be found in a single event.

As Fahrenthold put it regarding his systematic pursuit of Trump Foundation information: “The point of my stories was not to defeat Trump. The point was to tell readers the facts about this man running for president. How reliable was he at keeping promises? How much moral responsibility did he feel to help those less fortunate than he?”

Any individual story about Trump stiffing a charity doesn’t and can’t answer those questions, in the same way that any individual story about a pedophile priest doesn’t and can’t answer questions about the extent of the problem or the systematic cover-up being run by the Church. These are complicated stories that are, by nature, not reportable in disconnected, single articles. More than that, they’re stories that can’t be expected to emerge simply from an amalgamation of one-offs pieces.

They need context and connection, a tie consciously made by the reporter, and used to illuminate the bigger truth for the public — that is, they must understand that the forest is made of trees.

Michael A. Wolff – Freedom Fighter

by William H. Freivogel

Mike Wolff has helped save men on death row, preserve the St. Louis school desegregation program, end capital punishment for juveniles, protect the vote of poor people, establish jury trials in discrimination cases, preserve jury verdicts in personal injury suits and foster efforts to rid St. Louis’ municipal courts of longstanding injustices.

Few St. Louisans have made such important contributions to the public good over the past 30 years. As a legal services lawyer, civil liberties lawyer, special counsel to Gov. Mel Carnahan, Missouri Supreme Court judge and chief justice and retiring dean of the Saint Louis University Law school, Wolff has always been on the side of equality, freedom and good government.

This is why the Gateway Journalism Review is awarding Wolff the Freedom Fighter award at its First Amendment celebration on March 23.

Not only has Wolff accomplished more than just about any community leader, he always seems to be having more fun than anyone in the room. A big man, Wolff has a ready smile and a repertoire of wry, funny stories on the tip of the tongue. He’s not averse to chuckling at his own stories.

While on the Supreme Court, Wolff was that rare judge who was willing to explain a court decision to a reporter. Even rarer, he wrote like a journalist in a simple, common sense way that people could understand.

When Wolff was chief justice, AT&T Mobility tried to avoid having to pay tens of millions in taxes due on telephones. The company claimed cell phones were actually two-way radios instead of phones.

Wolff interrupted the technical arguments by holding up a cell phone in front of the lawyers and asking rhetorically if anyone doubted it was a phone.

In a 2011 adoption case, Wolff criticized the majority of the court for delaying the reunion of a boy and his immigrant mother whose parental rights had been unfairly terminated by a lower court. Wolff wrote that the mother and boy should be reunited “not in 90 more days or 900 more days, but now.”

Referring to the biblical story of Solomon, Wolff added, “At least Solomon had the option to decree that the child be cut in half. All we lesser judges have is the law, and it is our duty to make sure that the law is obeyed.”

In 2009, when the state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Missouri’s school funding formula, Wolff lamented that $6,342 went to educate each Festus student, but $16,647 each Clayton student.

“What makes the children of one school district deserving of only about one-third of the education money available for the schools of the children in the highest-spending district?”

he asked.

It’s not surprising that Wolff writes like a reporter. After graduating from Dartmouth, he worked his way through the University of Minnesota law school as a reporter and copy editor on the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Eddie Roth, a lawyer turned journalist turned public official, puts it this way: “Mike’s record of judicial leadership has his old reporter’s fingerprints all over it. He plied small ‘p’ politics from the bench the way journalists work from newsrooms; not by throwing his weight around, but by throwing well-reported, incisively expressed ideas around. He used fourth estate methods to advance third branch ideals.

“And by forging consensus through carefully constructed, durable foundations of law and fact, Mike Wolff has created platforms on which many have been empowered and inspired to participate in fights to win and preserve freedom.”

After a stint in legal services in St. Paul, Denver and as director in Rapid City, S.D., Wolff joined the Saint Louis University Law School faculty in 1975. He also served as general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.

Wolff was the lone Democrat to challenge Republican Attorney General William Webster in 1988.  Terry Ganey, the retired Post-Dispatch reporter who disclosed Webster’s Second Injury Fund scandal, recalls the race: “Webster, an incumbent, was considered unbeatable. Wolff at that time raised the issue of the Second Injury Fund being a problem. He was way ahead in making that an issue.”

Wolff lost in 1988 and lost the Democratic primary four years later to Jay Nixon. But the abuses of the Second Injury Fund helped bring down the Webster in the 1992 race for governor against Mel Carnahan. Wolff became Carnahan’s counsel.

One of Wolff’s leading accomplishments was to help craft legislation, supported by the governor, business leaders and a bi-partisan group of legislators, that made possible a negotiated settlement of the St. Louis desegregation case. The legislation extended the life of the novel program, which continues to exist, and directed state money to school districts with large percentages of poor children. The legislation finessed resistance from Nixon, who had waged an all-out legal campaign to end the transfer program.

As counsel Wolff reviewed the pleas of death row inmates. After Carnahan named Wolff to the state Supreme Court, Wolff was a leader of the court’s close scrutiny of capital cases.

Wolff joined the opinion of his friend, the late Richard Teitelman, in freeing Joseph Amrine from death row after the three key witnesses recanted their testimony. Wolff also took of heat of writing the decision giving Kenneth Baumruk a new trial in 2002. Baumruk had been convicted in the same courthouse where he had killed his wife and shot four others.

The most important death penalty decision led to the U.S. Supreme Court to end the execution of juveniles.

It’s not often that a state supreme court leads the U.S. Supreme Court into a new interpretation of the Constitution. But that’s what happened after the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Christopher Simmons could not be executed for murdering Shirley Crook because he was under 18 when he committed the crime. The U.S Supreme agreed that evolving standards of decency no longer permitted executing teens because their brains are not fully developed.

In another notable decision, Wolff was part of the majority that ruled photo ID requirements violated the promise of equality in the Missouri Constitution. That decision has blocked stringent photo ID laws for the past decade.

In other important decisions, Wolff established the right to a jury trial in employment discrimination cases, rejected caps on damage awards as deprivations of the right to trial by jury and upheld the right to collective bargaining for public employees. While on the court he also chaired the Sentencing Advisory Commission and was active in national efforts aimed at more rational, less arbitrary criminal sentencing.

After the court, Wolff became dean of Saint Louis University Law School, righting the ship after a tumultuous period during which the Rev. Lawrence Biondi forced out one dean and appointed an interim dean who did nothing to quiet things down.

The law school became a hotbed of reform of the municipal courts after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. This was a tricky situation because notable alums were on different sides of the municipal court issue. Thomas Harvey, head of ArchCity defenders, led the reform effort, while other graduates were in prominent municipal court judgeships.

Faculty also got heavily involved in the reform, including Professors John Ammann and Brendan Roediger. Wolff saw it as his job as dean to make sure Ammann and Roediger could fully represent their clients, whose lives had been damaged in the muni court shuffle of being locked up for failing to pay traffic fines.

Nor was Wolff afraid to criticize his old colleagues for moving too slowly to bring an end to the unjust practices in the municipal courts. Last summer, Wolff expressed his impatience with the slow response from the presiding judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court and from the state Supreme Court. That was before the Supreme Court acted at the end of the year to required important changes.

Wolff’s wife, Dr. Patricia Wolff, has long run the Meds & Food for Kids foundation that feeds a miracle peanut butter supplement to malnourished children in Haiti, saving hundreds of thousands of children.

It’s hard to think of another St. Louis couple that has contributed so much to the public good.

From Deep Throat to WikiLeaks

By William H. Freivogel

The most outstanding example of the press and the courts acting together to check the abuse of presidential power is the Pentagon Papers.

Congress had fallen down on its oversight during when on Aug. 7, 1964 it approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam War. The resolution was based on murky — and it turned out false — assertions that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had twice attacked the USS Maddox off the coast of Vietnam.

As the war dragged on and tens of thousands of men died, the press brought the bloody reality of combat to the nightly news, sowing seeds of doubt in Walter Cronkite and the American people. Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright held high-profile hearings later in the war, but Congress did not withdraw its authorization.

Daniel Ellsberg, a disaffected former military analyst and defense expert at Rand Corp., leaked a 47-volume top-secret history of the Vietnam War — the Pentagon Papers — to the New York Times. Publication began in the spring of 1971. The documents showed presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon had lied to the American people and Congress about important aspects of the war, puncturing the myth that voters had to defer to a president’s judgment because he surely knew more than the ordinary citizen. The president knew more, all right, but the additional information was a reason not to fight the war instead of a reason to fight.

Nixon tried to block publication, partly because National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told him voters would no longer defer to presidents if they saw presidents had lied to them. But the courts backed the press and said the government couldn’t stop publication of national security secrets unless there was the threat of “direct, immediate, and irreparable damager” to national security.

Justice Potter Stewart explained the important check on presidential power that the press and people provide, especially when Congress does not stand up to the president. Stewart wrote:

“In the governmental structure created by our Constitution, the Executive is endowed with enormous power in the two related areas of national defense and international relations. This power, largely unchecked by the Legislative and Judicial branches, has been pressed to the very hilt since the advent of the nuclear missile age.…

“In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For, without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people.”

Erwin Griswold — the solicitor general who had filed a secret brief with the Supreme Court claiming there were more than a dozen drop-dead secrets in the Pentagon Papers — later wrote that none of the secrets caused the United States harm once disclosed.

One similarity between the Pentagon Papers and the Trump/Russia stories is that the source of the leaks had an intelligence backgrounds. When intelligence sources provide journalists with damaging secrets and the courts protect the press’ publication of those secrets, a president can find himself in a lonely place.

Deep Throat

A year later, the mysterious “Deep Throat” began meeting with Bob Woodward in an underground garage in Washington. Deep Throat turned out to be Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI whom Nixon had passed over the lead the agency after J. Edgar Hoover’s death.

The Washington Post stories stirred the professional curiosity of U.S. District Judge John Sirica, who applied pressure to induce Watergate burglars to confess to White House connections.

Later, when a special prosecutor sought the secret tapes of White House conversations, the Supreme Court forced their release and Nixon left office a few days later. So it was a one-two punch by the press and the judiciary that forced Nixon from office.

There was one other important ingredient to the Watergate scandal. Congress fulfilled its role in checks and balances with the important Senate Watergate hearings and a move toward impeachment.

A similarity between Watergate and the Trump situation is that Watergate involved a burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters; the Russian hacks were a modern-day cyber-theft of DNC documents.

Jason Blair and Judith Miller

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the D.C. sniper murders and the anthrax poisonings discredited the press’ use of unnamed sources and tested the press’ spine for checking presidential power.

New York Times reporter Jason Blair built his fabricated stories about the sniper on fictitious confidential sources. Judith Miller of the Times used real but inaccurate confidential sources in government to help President George W. Bush beat the drum for a war against Iraq. The Times also ran a column falsely implicating scientist Steven Hatfill in the anthrax poisonings.

Compounding the problem, the press as a whole failed to scrutinize the president’s justification for the war in Iraq, a justification found to be false when no weapons of mass destruction were found.

With Congress, the courts and the press all on the sidelines, the unchecked president took America into a pre-emptive war against Iraq based on the danger of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

After the fall of Baghdad, as the insurgency grew in Iraq, Ambassador Joseph Wilson disclosed in a New York Times op-ed that the government knew before the war that Saddam Hussein had not bought uranium from Niger for a bomb – despite Bush’s claims to the contrary in his State of the Union speech. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, struck back at Wilson by leaking the secret that his wife, Valerie Plame, was an uncover CIA agent — an effort to force the whistleblower’s family to pay a price for telling the truth.

Guantanamo and the Geneva Conventions

The courts and the press reasserted their power to check Bush in the years after the war.

The Washington Post disclosed that the CIA was using secret “black” prisons in foreign countries to hold terrorism suspects and apply “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding. The New York Times disclosed what appeared to be illegal and unconstitutional wiretaps of American citizens conducted without warrants. Both stories relied on unnamed sources.

In a Dec. 5, 2005 meeting at the White House, President Bush and his top advisers warned Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and top editors that they would have “blood on their hands” if the disclosure of the secret wiretaps helped al-Qaida carry out another attack on U.S. soil. The Times published despite the threat.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s assertion that the courts could not review the president’s detention of al-Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The Supreme Court found that even the Guantanamo prisoners could go to federal court. In addition, they were entitled to the rudiments of due process, such as the opportunity to hear and refute charges against them.

The legal argument that Trump’s lawyers made in defense of the president’s ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations was similar to the Bush claim about the Guantanamo prisoners. Trump maintained that the courts had no business reviewing his executive order because he had absolute power in arena of immigration and national security.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision rejecting Trump’s argument cited the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions against Bush’s claim of absolute power at Guantanamo Bay. It noted that the Supreme Court had found the “political branches” lack “the power to switch the Constitution on or off at will.”

Trump’s warning that the judges would deserve the blame if the delay of his order resulted in a terrorist attack was reminiscent of Bush’s warning that the Times would have blood on its hands if it disclosed the NSA wiretapping.

Snowden and the NSA

The most recent example of the press checking the power of a president was Edward Snowden’s leak of information about the extent of NSA spying on Americans. Snowden, who worked for the defense contractor Booz Allen, leaked information about the NSA’s collection of metadata on the telephones calls of all Americans and about the PRISM program collecting internet content.

Initially, the NSA claimed the programs had been valuable in stopping scores of terrorist attacks. But it turned out that there was no proof that the information had stopped a single attack.

The Obama administration sought to prosecute Snowden for violating the Espionage Act, but he obtained asylum in Russia. Meanwhile, Obama signed a reform law that put the NSA program on a firmer legal footing by having private phone companies collect the metadata instead of the government.

Crying wolf

One characteristic common among confidential source stories is that the government almost always cries wolf about the dire consequences of publication.

Nixon’s solicitor general wrote a brief of drop-dead secrets that would cost tens of thousands of lives. The solicitor general later said there was no harm.

Bush warned Times’ editors they would have blood on their hands, but there was no attack resulting from the publication of NSA wiretapping.

And the Obama administration claimed Snowden’s disclosures would end surveillance techniques that had stopped scores of attacks. But they later admitted there was no proof that U.S. attacks had been stopped.

One government warning that proved prescient was Kissinger’s to Nixon – If the people knew from the Pentagon Papers that presidents lied about the Vietnam War, they might not believe presidents in the future.

The people found out from the press and they have been skeptical of presidents ever since.