Both of Columbia’s daily newspapers reported at the end of March a happy conclusion to the State Historical Society’s contentious search for a site for its new museum. MU will make available the parking lot just west of the Missourian and south of the Heinkel Building. There’ll be no need for the city to invoke its power of eminent domain after all.
(It’s still not clear whether there will actually be the money to build the museum; but that’s the subject of stories yet to come.)
Neither paper has reported, however, on the behind-the-scenes role played in the public drama by the guy who is probably our town’s most influential citizen. I refer to Hank Waters — or, as he’s known to dozens, maybe thousands, of readers of his editorials, HJWIII. Hank is editor and publisher of the Columbia Daily Tribune. He is also vice president of the Historical Society’s board of trustees and chairman of the board’s development committee.
His dual roles in the site search are revealed in a set of e-mails disclosed under the state Sunshine Law at the request of community gadfly Traci Wilson-Kleekamp and published this week in Mike Martin’s online newsletter, Columbia Heart Beat. You can read Mike’s report for yourself at columbiaheartbeat.blogspot.com.
The e-mails show Hank as urging City Manager Bill Watkins to support the use of eminent domain to buy a privately owned block just west of the eventual site. He also advised fellow trustees on how to handle negotiations with university and city leaders. At the same time, he editorialized in favor of the positions he was pushing as a society trustee.
Both Mike and Traci are exercised, as civic activists should be, by what they see as a conflict of interest in that private maneuvering and public editorializing. The issue they raise strikes me as important. It reaches well beyond this instance.
I’d phrase the core question this way: What is the proper balance between an editor’s public role as journalist and his private role as civic leader?
I called Hank at home Wednesday morning, interrupting him as he was getting ready to write an editorial, and asked about his possible conflict. He preferred my term “confluence of interests.”
I asked whether he’d had any second thoughts about his efforts.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. Then he educated me for a few minutes on the virtues of eminent domain and the necessity of its use as the city redevelops downtown in accord with the Sasaki plan. I led him back to my concern.
Of course, this isn’t the first time such a concern has been raised. Over the years, Hank has headed the boards of Stephens College and the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre. He has written about both. His wife, Vicki Russell, has chaired the Boone County Fair Board and been active in many other organizations. He has written about them, too. So he has given a good deal of thought to conflicts, or confluences.
“I just decided some time ago not to worry about this,” he said Wednesday. “The concern is perception – the purity issue.”
As long as he is satisfied that he’s working for the good of the community, he isn’t going to let the purity issue restrict that work. In this case, he said, his one regret is that he didn’t write even more. The only way to avoid the perception problem, he has concluded, would be to abdicate what he sees as his civic responsibility.
I’m a longtime admirer of Hank Waters. True, when I was editing the Missourian, I used to nip at his ankles once in a while. But I nominated him for the School of Journalism’s Honor Medal, which he received. His editorials have enriched the public conversation. He has kept the Tribune in family hands.
This time, though, it seems to me he’s standing on shaky ground. Good journalism requires independence. It also requires full disclosure. In his editorials, Hank did note that he is on the society’s board of trustees, but he didn’t come close to revealing the level of his involvement. When an editorialist has more than a rooting interest in his subject, readers deserve to know that so they can judge the opinionating accordingly.
I don’t question Hank’s sincerity when he argues that he’s trying to advance the good of the community in private as well as in public. I do think he should have been more forthcoming about his actions. Another, I’d say better, choice would have been to leave the private lobbying to somebody else. An editor’s public role is too important to risk undercutting it. Perception matters.
Purity may be too high a standard for journalists to reach, but independence isn’t.
At the end of our chat, Hank summed up. “The more disclosure the better,” he said.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.