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Waters on shaky ground as both publisher and community advocate

Thursday, April 16, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:49 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 16, 2009

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.

Exactly.

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


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Comments

Jeff Fox April 16, 2009 | 9:44 a.m.

Good column, George. I can only add: disclose, disclose, disclose. I'm on the board of local non-profit that gets little attention in the paper. Lo and behold, two of our local columnists recently happened to mention it and its good works. Does anyone know or care that I edit those columns and write those headlines? Not the point. I felt compelled to add a tagline explaining my connection. Disclose, and let the readers decide.

Jeff Fox, opinion page editor, The Examiner, Independence, Mo.

(Report Comment)
candid reporting April 16, 2009 | 11:50 a.m.

Good column, exposing bias and corruption.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch just fired a reporter - Sylvester Brown- for conduct that is child's play to what is described in this column. This is part of the reason the mainstream media is dying. Hank Waters is a prime example of why some conservatives refer to it as the "drive-by media". Waters and others are now being held accountable and being exposed by new media such as columbiaheartbeat.blogspot.com. He should have sold his paper at the same time Pulitzer sold the Post-Dispatch - the value of the Tribune has diminished by multiples in the last 5 years, in part because of Waters biased, corrupt, advocacy journalism reflected in this column.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr April 16, 2009 | 11:55 a.m.

Just another example of the good ole boy network in this community not giving a dam about the community in general but only a select group of people once again.

Oust them all out of office and start from fresh IMHO. Until then this community will be dealt the same ole smelly mess it is now.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 16, 2009 | 1:44 p.m.

IMHO, good intentions, bad implementation. Our city leaders should not have conspired with the eminent domain approach.
Considering other readily available properties would have been the more astute thing to do.
"The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done."
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841 - 1935)

(Report Comment)
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp April 16, 2009 | 3:03 p.m.

Hmmmmm. The public good? Shouldn't the public good be based upon honesty (in the realm of professionalism in journalism) rather than deceit to advance the aims of an agency that requires public dollars to exist.

IMHO, Mr. Waters is confused. He can't decide if he wants to be a lapdog or watchdog of our public process...the latter is what we as citizens depend on our press to do.

In the end, the best thing about all this..is that readers now know...when Hank Waters speaks....readers should close their eyes, plug their ears and hold their nose...and do not believe for a minute a word he pens....

Since Mr. Waters doesn't respect his readership or leadership responsibility enough - to refrain from keeping secrets from the very people he is supposed to be serving with truthful information -- I'd say he's a relic in a time when we so desperately need so much more from our press.

Mr. Waters belongs in the tarpit with the rest of the dinosaurs.... i.e. RETIREMENT.

I hope Columbia residents will demand more.

Traci WIlson-Kleekamp

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 16, 2009 | 3:55 p.m.

@Traci:
Mr. Waters is a business man. What would motivate elected officials and one of the highest paid city employers to follow suit?
"I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word, and thought throughout our lifetime."
-ELISABETH KÜBLER-ROSS

(Report Comment)
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp April 16, 2009 | 5:48 p.m.

Ray

Mr. Waters is supposed to be a professional journalist representing the 4th estate. I understand he owns the paper. So what? It is aggregious that the City Manager with the help of Mr. Waters who runs essentially the paper of record for the City -- ran an end game AROUND the City Council. Did you notice that the council people were not copied on this correspondence. Notice the silence from the elected officials. The question is.. who gets held accountable if the newspaper publisher -- conspires with an unelected City Official to take someone's property essentially in secret and has bad manners to boot. This isn't business -- this is mafia type handling of the public's business. Like I said before, Mr. Waters can't have it both ways; including having his cohorts like Mr. Al Price essentially marginalize Mr. Radar for refusing to accept "their" deal that was never offered formally.

This is not how business is conducted. This is how dishonest people with power abuse public trust and send a powerful message that we have yet another reason NOT to trust our government.

The tar pit is calling Mr. Waters... and the likes of those who do the public's business in the dark.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr April 16, 2009 | 5:56 p.m.

>>> This is not how business is conducted. This is how dishonest people with power abuse public trust and send a powerful message that we have yet another reason NOT to trust our government. <<<

Especially our City Government.

(Report Comment)
Amir Ziv April 16, 2009 | 6:46 p.m.

What bothers me more is our city manager and how he handled this situation. He has no regard for city council and the process. It makes you wonder how many deals have been made behind closed doors by the "good old boys". As bad as Hank Waters actions were, Mr Watkins makes decisions every day that affect the future of our city. His trust has been broken, he must go.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock April 16, 2009 | 7:24 p.m.

Traci- could you email me? allansharrock2009@gmail.com

Thanks

Allan Sharrock

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr April 16, 2009 | 8:42 p.m.

Amir Ziv I agree with your statements and this just proves the points some others have made that this city needs to move in the direction of a paid city Mayor and a paid City Controller to keep this city on the right track.

By this those two offices are more accountable to the community than they obviously are at this time.

(Report Comment)
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp April 16, 2009 | 9:07 p.m.

I do not know if paying the City Council members & Mayor makes them more accountable. I don't know what the solution is...I respect the trememdous job Mr. Watkins does; I disagree with how this issue was handled; and I have major issues with these pre-council meetings. I believe that the Mayor, Council and City Manager should have openly and publicly deliberated the options and intentions relative to assisting the SHSM.

I sense that at least some people (Waters, Hindman etc.) have a bit of disdain for some or all of the council members -- hence leaving them out of the loop --unless the city is holding back on correspondence that included council members. All that flack several weeks ago about the meeting where certain members of the good old by community express a wish to dial back members of the council who impeded their idea of progress is now starting to make so much sense. In a way; this land grab with Waters (who was also apparently at that good old boy downtown meeting) is an extension of that ploy.

It appears that the weak council -- strong mayor and ex officio or council member at large (via Hank Waters) form of government does not exactly give us the kind of accountability that we might be seeking in terms of public policy.

I believe all of Hank Waters' correspondence involving the SHSM should be produced under the Missouri sunshine law.

(Report Comment)
David Karr April 16, 2009 | 9:29 p.m.

Sure, Waters should disclose, but if the majority population don't understand the distinction between the editorial pages of a paper (and it's his paper) and the reporting pages, then this is what you get.

This isn't just about Waters' questionable use of his paper, but also about the public's innocence/ignorance of how media works.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 16, 2009 | 9:38 p.m.

Any business person, sitting on a board, will encounter situations which may reek of conflicts of interest. If a pattern of bad choices develops, I'd be very concerned.
Currently, the city manager aided by a private attorney/5th term mayor, are positioned to manipulate our city council. It's the tail wagging the dog.
An elected paid Mayor with a financial controller, coupled with meaningful town hall meetings and liaison committees, (which are all ready in place), could be considered by the citizens of Columbia. If such a change doesn't work out for the better, we can always go back to the old way of doing things.
Just a suggestion.
“When you're finished changing, you're finished.”
-Benjamin Franklin

(Report Comment)
Dan Viets April 16, 2009 | 11:50 p.m.

George says he thinks Hank did not reveal enough about the extent of his volunteer activity with the State Historical Society. The other activities with Stephens College and The Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, are also volunteer work. George says he admires Waters and appreciates him keeping the Trib in local hands. I agree. While no one could agree with all of the hundreds of editorials he writes every year, I think we are lucky to have him where he is.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin April 17, 2009 | 8:17 a.m.

IMHO, George hits the nail on the head here, especially through his eye-opening exchange with Mr. Waters, something few local journalists could have ever elicited.

Back on April 16, 2006, I wrote the following in a letter to the editor that mostly praised the Tribune, on the heels of twin Waters endorsements: school board and courthouse expansion.

"More importantly, Waters should disclose his relationships to the issues he endorses.

His wife, Vicki Russell, was a member of the county’s space needs committee. And his publishing company has received four sizable school district printing contracts, approved by school board members."

Essentially, Mr. Waters had just endorsed -- without disclosing it -- some people -- incumbent school board members -- who sign his paychecks.

The Trib's editors, knowing that it was the right thing to do, added this belated disclosure:

"Editor’s note: During this fiscal year, Columbia Public Schools, through a public bidding process, has awarded printing contracts worth $40,387.83 to Tribune Publishing Co."

Many times before and since, Mr. Waters has encouraged transparency, openness, and full disclosure. He had this to say in May 2007:

"The single most effective tool for encouraging good performance by public officials is openness. Forcing public officials to operate in public is the entire thrust of the Sunshine Law. If governments work openly, the best possible outcomes are assured."

So what happened with transparency and the Historical Society, an institution so public that public officials thought it okay to use eminent domain on its behalf?

In his profile of Mr. Waters, George Kennedy has revealed a man who, while routinely examining the rest of us, has clearly given up on self-examination, receding instead into a kind of self-assured smugness.

That's too bad, both for Columbia and for local journalism generally.

-- Mike Martin

(Report Comment)
Greg Collins April 17, 2009 | 8:21 a.m.

Apparently, "disclosure" is only for other people.

(Report Comment)
Barbara Burlison April 17, 2009 | 3:42 p.m.

Hank Waters follows a long line of editors and publishers who have take an interest in their hometowns. I can't fault him for that, but perhaps the entire Historical Society "thing" could have been handled a bit more diplomatically.
Do you really want someone who knows nothing about Mid-Missouri owning the Tribune? Just look what has happened to the Post-Dispatch since the Pulitzer Corp. sold it. Somedays, there is hardly enough to line the bottom of a bird cage - and frequently, the content would bore the bird to death.
I believe Columbia is indeed fortunate to have two newspapers, particularly in this age of the "instant" news. I find great satisfaction in reading stories of interst in depth rather than simply skating over the surface. That probably is the biggest complaint in relation to the historical society project - there wasn't enough in-depth info imparted to readers via the news stories. But where was the Missourian in all this? Did they report that Waters was on the board? If so, I missed that article.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 17, 2009 | 5:50 p.m.

("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, “confluence of interests.”)

confluence definition
noun
a flowing together, esp. of two or more streams
the place where they join
a coming together as of people; crowd; throng
confluence usage examples:

It was already a " great confluence of people and trade."

http://www.yourdictionary.com/confluence...
The State Historical Society of Missouri
1020 Lowry Street
Columbia, Missouri 65201

Officers, 2007-2010

Doug Crews, Columbia, President
Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., Cape Girardeau, First Vice President
James R. Reinhard, Hannibal, Second Vice President
Roy Blunt, Springfield, Third Vice President
Donna G. Huston, Marshall, Fourth Vice President
Henry J. Waters III, Columbia, Fifth Vice President
Albert M. Price, Columbia, Sixth Vice President and Treasurer
Gary R. Kremer, Jefferson City, Executive Director, Secretary, and Librarian
THE TRIBUNE'S VIEW
Downtown
By HENRY J. WATERS III, Publisher, Columbia Daily Tribune
The plan for downtown redevelopment outlined in the Sasaki plan cannot be implemented without city authority to help assemble tracts of land for larger projects. The first and ultimately most important project is the new building for the State Historical Society of Missouri.
http://archive.columbiatribune.com/2008/...
Mayor, City Council need to rethink ethics of eminent domain ...
http://www.columbiamissourian.com/storie...

(Report Comment)
John Fletcher April 18, 2009 | 11:50 a.m.

I think the term "editorialize" is important. Is it not unusual for an editorial to advocate some position? Don't editorials rutinely endorse candidates for public office? Based on this column, it would be unethical for a person who writes an editorial endorsing a candidate to then vote for that candidate or work for their success or make a contribution to their campaign.

I am personally am sick of seeing non-editorial reporting that reads like an endorsement. It is way to common these days.

(Report Comment)

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