Matthew has been a reporter for Missouri Digital News since January 2011 when he reported on tax and revenue policy as well as covering the state's redistricting process. In January 2012, he became the business reporter for Missouri Digital News as well as an editor and newsroom manager.
Following the 2012 legislative session, Matthew covered Missouri's 2012 primary elections for the Columbia Missourian. He was also the managing editor of Project Open Vault throughout the 2012 election season.
Matthew was born in Maryland and moved to St. Louis, Mo. in 2000. He began attending the University of Missouri in 2009 where he is pursuing a major in journalism and political science and a minor in philosophy.
Posted 05/01/2011: As I write this post I am watching CNN and NBC as they report on the death of infamous terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Originally I was going to talk about the events of last week, which kept me at the capitol late into the night as Missouri's lawmakers decided to cram what seemed like an entire legislative session into one night, but, honestly, this seems more important for a variety of reasons. The death of one of the most infamous terrorist leaders strikes deep into the nation's heart and stirs numerous feelings among all Americans, such as happiness and patriotism over the triumph as well as disappointment and criticism over the lengthy time and immense cost (human and monetary) that was required for this to happen.
Aside from these national feelings, the reports also bring up many personal feelings for me as well. Some of the feelings, such as the pride and disappointment mentioned above, are the same, but others are very different, such as my thoughts about why I decided to become a journalist. I do not want to claim that hunting down and finding Osama bin Laden was my motivation for going into journalism because that would be an incorrect, but not completely false, statement. I will say, however, that the incidents that bin Laden was involved with 10 years ago were a main motivation for me to pursue journalism as a career.
However cliche this may sound (and I can assure you it will, but it is all completely true), the attacks on 9/11 hit me, as well as every one in the nation, extremely deeply. My entire extended family lives in New York and my aunt worked only blocks away from the World Trade Center. I can still remember coming home from school and watching the news, not quite understanding what was happening but still knowing that something terrible had hit the nation. The next few hours were a blur for my then fifth grade mind as I continued to watch the events unfold on TV while listening to my mom try and get in touch with her sister who had been out of contact since the attack. Luckily, she was okay, but somehow, none of us would ever really feel the same again. New York was our home, either directly as in my parents case, or indirectly for my brother and I, who visit every year and will still claim New York as a second, and sometimes primary, home. I can honestly mark the attacks as a major turning point for me personally, since that day was when I actually started questioning my environment, looked into politics and international affairs and began searching for the facts, as all journalists should. Even though I have not quite made it yet and my journey into the world of reporting is still unfolding before me, my feelings on that day, as well as today with these most recent developments, are still the same and are still a major motivation for me to continue along this path towards the news.
But for now the president's press conference should be starting soon so I must leave this post about my journalistic beginnings and continuing ventures with a simple, but accurate, to be continued...
A great example of this occurred, once again, with the redistricting process this week. With the legislative session coming to a close, it is the duty of the General Assembly to pass a new congressional district map before it all ends, otherwise the issue has to go to the courts for a decision. Due to this fast approaching deadline, for the past two weeks the legislators in charge of the process have been trying to force a plan through their respective houses that meets requirements such as "compact and contiguous" districts, to use the repeatedly said words of the people in charge. This past week, the quickening of the pace led to some potentially less then ethical, but perfectly political moves by some lawmakers causing overall drama throughout the legislature. In order to move the various redistricting plans along, the senate quickly passed a change to the House proposal that made the House's map virtually identical to the Senate one. To make a long and complex story short, the senate's move not only caused problems within its own chamber but the drama emanated to the House, which in an unexpected move (at least for me), is refusing to meet on Monday as a sort of protest against the Senate's action, effectively ruining any chance of meeting the April 18 deadline of passing a proposal in time to be able to override a (potential) veto by the governor.
Unfortunately as a student journalist (emphasis on student for this post), I did not have as much time as I wanted to commit to watching all of this drama unfold, at least not without significant impacts to my other school work. For the first time since I began reporting at the capitol I found myself disappointed that I was not able to be there as much as I wanted to, despite the stress that some of my time at the capitol has caused me. Luckily, I made up for not being there by reading every article I could find on the events of the week so that I could be up-to-date for when I go back and, hopefully, there will still be some drama and politicking left for me to report on next week.
Unfortunately this is not the case and more often then not, the inclusion of vast amounts of information in news reports tends to dilute and confuse the important and relevant facts of an issue, making it increasingly difficult for the public to understand what is actually happening in the world around them.
I was confronted with this problem in two ways this week, one direct and one indirect, as I wrote about an extremely vital topic currently being dealt with in the General Assembly, the redistricting process, and watched the effects of a more national issue, the budget debates and potential government shutdown. In both cases I witnessed, in one way or the other, the political process first-hand and saw as the various layers of each issue emerged. After various talks with my editor and my own investigation of redistricting, more and more details and aspects of the process began to reveal themselves to me, making my job as a journalist more difficult but exponentially more interesting, as I had to going through the facts that I had gathered in order to figure out which parts were the most relevant and significant to the topic at hand. (Note: Much of the information I debated over had to do with the elimination of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan's St. Louis congressional district and the politics behind the choice to dissolve his district. In the end, any information I did not include was only because I was not 100 percent confident that what I would have been reporting was 100 percent true, which, I suppose, is another consequence of attempting find every detail you can about a story) Without this self-editing, the stories I produced would have undoubtedly been garbled piles of facts that, while true, would have been incoherent and useless for informing the public; and, as every journalist should know, if a story does not effectively inform the public and help the people learn about their environment, then what purpose does it serve?
Fortunately for my imagination I was not being hunted by zombies, wearing a red shirt in a Star Trek episode or the comedic relief in a bad horror film.
This week just so happened to be spring break for the General Assembly so the normally bustling halls held only some school groups taking a tour of the capitol, families who were bored with staying in the house and the members of the state house newsrooms. After all, the news never stops, even if the government takes a break. Needless to say, this week was a happily welcomed break from the usually fast and long days of the previous ones. Instead of rushing from room to room trying to catch a hearing, a vote or a legislator before he or she left for the day, most of us in the newsroom worked on our long term stories, which, in my case, meant working with Jamie on a story explaining the 2010 census results and redistricting process. As one can imagine, doing research for this topic could be problematic since the legislators in charge of the process were not in the building. Despite our first thoughts of every legislator being on vacation, after doing some digging, Jamie and I were able to find numbers for some of the legislators' day jobs and we were able to contact them there. While finding out that not every government official had decided to skip town during their break was surprising, it was even more surprising to find that the legislators who had stayed in town actually took the time to talk to us about government business, even if they were busy trying to make a living.
So it seems that, just like the news, the government never truly stops. It just takes a break and lulls the unsuspecting into a false sense of relaxation before pouncing once again.
Luckily for me, I have a week off to prepare.
Despite these problems, the solution, which is to fact check every claim and every substantiated fact on every story, is both simple and difficult at the same time. On one side, big news organizations should have the ability to have teams of researchers who are constantly on the watch for breaking news while making sure that any information coming into the organization is fact checked multiple times. If this procedure is followed then mistakes would still be made, but hopefully they would be ones that could not be stopped by simply taking the time to call an expert like a professor or doing a quick Google search. Unfortunately, small time journalists such as internet start-ups or students such as myself and my colleagues do not have these resources, which is where the major problem comes into play. Luckily, we do have the internet, access to professors and access to our editor or editors that most likely know much more then we could ever hope to realize, but still problems can arise.
I ran into these problems this week while I writing a follow up story to the one I did last week over Ameren's plans to build a new nuclear plant in Callaway County. For this week's story I had to compare the events with Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant with the current Callaway plant, while also trying to find out if any major parties in support of the plant had decided to change their minds on going forward with a new plant. Although the problem of getting the details correct existed for me, I was still ready to cover this story since I have a love-hate relationship with details and story writing. While I love researching and trying to figure out exactly what happened on a particular issue, this same research and investigation can occasionally drive me to a breaking point where I have a hard time getting the story across over the mountain of details that I have consumed. Fortunately I had the access mentioned above to the internet, other news stories, databases, etc. as well as a group of people in the newsroom that I could bounce ideas off of and lay out everything next to each other so that I could figure out exactly what happened with the Japan plant and how.
This brings up another question, however, which is if I can do this with a limited group of resources, why can't the major news organizations that have a vast amount more access to resources and information then I do?
Although this quote is inspiring and and fits perfectly within a political setting, it raises some questions about the political system, especially ones about who picks what is morally right or wrong and how can any one person decide what is both politically and morally correct. Ideally, this quote would sum up politics perfectly and all political actions would follow Gladstone's guidelines, but how can any one person or even one group of people decide on a set of morals to follow and how can they decide whether or not these morals are actually correct? Even in my short time at the capitol I have witnessed and covered various issues that have presented different and conflicting ideas and morals, such as the hearing I attended over the possible construction of another nuclear power plant in Callaway County. While one side wants the construction because it would be wrong to deny Missouri the energy and jobs that would come from such a plant, the other side argues that the plant would only cost the state money and commit to destruction of the local environment. Given these arguments, how can it be possible to figure out which set of morals to follow while committing political actions?
But I suppose the solution is very simple and one that our country's political system has been centered around since it was created. In order to follow Gladstone's example and only commit to political actions that were morally right, it is up to the representatives that the citizens elect to listen to the people and find out what they think is morally right. Then based off of these answers, the representatives must do the best they can to follow the will of the people in this regard. Unfortunately, it is not always this simple and politics and personal motive can get in the way of proper and moral action. Thankfully, and most important for my colleagues and I, the press, in its prime, will be there to hold the politicians to their word and make them do what is both morally and politically right.
But this is a naive point of view and one that I cannot say I fully believe in, even if I do think rational discussion and thought is always the better tract for to figure out any problem. The honest answer is that if a legislator wants to kill a bill it makes much more sense for his or her agenda to simply talk the bill to death or come up with some other way of getting it off of the legislature's agenda. By doing this the bill goes away, meaning the legislator wins, at least until another bill on the same topic comes back up the ladder. I guess I can just chalk my first filibuster experience up to another moment at the capitol that has revealed yet another mystery to me about the political process.
Although I am still wondering, did the filibuster cost the state more money? Is there a particular budget set aside for such occurrences? Who paid for the pizza that the senators ate?
Following Monday's mostly relaxed day, I was both happy and saddened when my first few hours in the capitol on Wednesday were just as slow as they were on Monday. Luckily I was able to sign up to cover another conference, with this one dealing with the state auditor's efforts to create a comparative analysis about the state's top agencies. Right before I went to the auditor's conference I took some time to walk around the first floor and noticed a certain tension and buzz building with the state officials throughout the crowded hallway (there were a lot more people especially since school groups were visiting as well as concerned groups over various issues) and quickly found out that all the commotion was about the result over an issue that has been plaguing the capitol for a while. Before I attended the conference the House, which has been discussing reports of the Governor's extensive travel, Representatives voted unanimously to require all of the Governor's records to be disclosed so they could properly analyze his travel throughout the state. Once this vote was over, my story was quickly overshadowed since every in the capitol, even the auditor at his own press conference, began talking about it. Fortunately, I was still able to produce the story I needed to while simultaneously being a part of the commotion that overtook the entire capitol.
However, there is another part to listening while reporting, which is eavesdropping. I know that this sounds like a negative term and that my mother always told me not to eavesdrop (apparently I even wanted to know "the whole truth and nothing but the truth," to quote the court oath, when I was younger as well as now), but the reality is that a reporter listening in on information around him or her can find out some interesting information for the story being covered. I am not advocating that reporters should actively force themselves into a private meeting or intrude on someone's personal space whenever they want, but if a reporter is in a meeting or walking down the halls of the state capitol building, then listening to a passing conversation can be extremely helpful.
So far at my time at the capitol most of the conversations that I have overheard have been unrelated to any issue I was covering or even interesting enough to be of note. Listening to the people behind me at a House committee hearing cracking jokes about the proceedings, albeit funny at times, was mostly annoying since I was actively attempting to figure out what the committee members were talking about; while hearing about what was for lunch that day was less interesting, although slightly informative for my growing hunger.
Despite the plethora of uninformative talk that I overheard there was a moment when all of my "extra listening skills," i.e. eavesdropping, became useful. While waiting for a House committee hearing to begin about the Internet sales tax bills I was covering, I overheard one of the sponsors of the bills tell one of his supporters that he was planning to support his fellow representative's bill over his own since, in his opinion, it was more complete. Although this information made sense considering both bills about the Internet sales tax are virtually identical, I had never thought that one representative would choose another bill over his own, if only to boost the chances of one of the bills passing. After hearing this, I wrote the information down and was happily rewarded when Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-St. Louis County, went on the record in support of his fellow committee member's bill (sponsored by Rep. Margo McNeil, D-St. Louis County), so it seems that my mother may have been wrong for once when she told me never to eavesdrop, although I probably should not mention that to her...
Since these questions seemed to filter into the research that I was doing for an ongoing story, I asked one of these legislators (Rep. Margo McNeil, D-St. Louis County) how her bill compared and differed to a bill from one of her colleagues, even though they had pretty much exact wording. McNeil said that she did not know exactly how the bills differed but that each existed separately, not only because each legislator wanted the same result, but because the legislators and bills were in sync with each other and, hopefully, due to their separation, at least one of the legislators' efforts would be recognized. Fortunately for my curiosity, McNeil's explanation seems to be common among both House and Senate members who have attempted to admit multiple proposals into legislation for the sole reason of giving their bills more of a chance of being recognized and passed. That seems logical enough.
But, yet, I still wonder about it. How much does the time it take to review these multiple bills cost the state? Does submitting multiple proposals for the same issue, even from different legislators, actually work? Or does it just clog up the system and take more time away from other issues?
It seems that my inquiries into this topic are not over, but I'll be happy to find the answers as my time at the capitol continues.
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