Watchdogs get it right; take down Blunt administration

Thursday, November 20, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST

We journalists like to talk about our "watchdog" role. We see it as not only the fulfillment of our First Amendment responsibility but as the public service that counter-balances the sensationalism, celebrity glorification and mindless shouting that are the dark side of our freedom.

We think of ourselves as those tireless and underappreciated sentinels who scrutinize the activities of the government and raise the alarm when we catch somebody violating the public trust.

Sometimes, of course, the watchdogs fall asleep. Sometimes we lick a hand we should be biting. But sometimes we do it right.

One of those times culminated Sunday in an important story that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star and was circulated across the state by The Associated Press. (The Missourian ran the AP version online but not in print.)

Here, for those who may have missed it, is the top of the Post-Dispatch version, written by Tony Messenger:

"For more than a year, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt's administration has defended itself against accusations that it has ignored laws that guarantee an open government.

"The administration contended that a fired staff lawyer never offered advice about the governor's policy requiring public records, including e-mails, to be retained.

"But he did.

"Blunt's staffers said the administration did not regularly conduct state business out of public view on campaign e-mail accounts.

"But they did.

"And the governor's then-chief of staff denied the existence of e-mails showing he had engaged in political activities on state time.

"But hundreds of them exist."

In other words, the leaders of our state government have been lying to us. They lied about concealing public records. They lied about collaborating with anti-abortion groups to attack Jay Nixon. They lied about an effort to subvert the state's judicial selection system.

The watchdogs sank their teeth into the issue and didn't let go until the truth emerged.

This tangled tale began more than a year ago when Tony, then the opinion page editor of the Springfield News Leader, wrote about the anti-abortion and anti-Nixon politicking of Ed Martin, who was then the Boy Governor's chief of staff. The governor's mouthpiece denied the existence of such e-mails. Tony then produced one.

During the backing-and-forthing that followed, a deputy counsel named Scott Eckersley wrote several e-mails warning that the Open Records law required that e-mails be retained. He was fired. The denials continued.

Eckersley sued, charging he was being defamed. He sought the release of the e-mails. More denials. Attorney General Nixon launched an investigation. The Blunt administration told his investigators that it would cost $500,000 for the records they wanted.

Then the Post, the Star and the AP joined the investigators' lawsuit, arguing that these were, in fact, public records that must not be destroyed and must be released.

Last week, the e-mails that supposedly didn't exist, among more than 60,000 pages total, were handed over. No $500,000 changed hands.

The Eckersley lawsuit remains unsettled. So does the question of whether the Blunt administration broke the law by its handling of what clearly are public documents.

At least two things are clear, however. We citizens were persistently deceived by our rulers. And this time the watchdogs earned their keep.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ayn Rand November 20, 2008 | 11:32 a.m.

"(The Missourian ran the AP version online but not in print.)"

Why on earth would the Missourian choose not to run such a major story? Was it a deadline issue?

(Report Comment)
Cheeseburger Paradise November 26, 2008 | 9:09 a.m.

Give yourself a pat on the back - you successfully wasted endless hours of the administration's time, countless barrels of ink and millions of taxpayers' money on the search to reveal that (!!!!) Matt Blunt's staff coordinated with allies via email and fired a disagreeable employee.

When is the MO press going to live up its promise of non-partisanship and ask Nixon why he deleted all of his emails or ask McCaskill why she feels compelled to charge for her emails?

What a joke...

(Report Comment)

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