Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL144.PRB - Protecting the Public from Journalists«MDNM»
The day after the November elections, Gov. Jay Nixon provided the most detailed explanation yet as to why his administration blocks reporters from talking with agency directors and experts.
His explanation ultimately came down to the argument that it was too harmful to the public for journalists to have that kind of access.
The explanation came at a news conference where Nixon announced his appointment of the new Revenue Department director.
Would reporters be allowed to interview the new director, asked Bob Priddy, the news director of the radio network Missourinet.
Priddy did not get a direct answer to his question. Instead, Nixon stressed the need for his administration to deliver a "consistent" message.
Priddy responded that he assumed that meant "no" -- that reporters would not be allowed to talk with the state's chief tax-collection official. Nixon did not dispute Priddy's conclusion.
That is quite different from the response I'm sure would have been delivered by every other governor I've covered -- Warren Hearnes, Kit Bond, Joe Teasdale, John Ashcroft, Mel Carnahan, Roger Wilson, Bob Holden, Matt Blunt.
I have no doubt that the answer would have been a definite "yes" or "of course." Moreover, I suspect some would have asked "Bob, what prompted you to ask that question?"
Rather than imposing a barrier to access, the staff of some of these governors often helped reporters get access when agency officials were refusing to make themselves available or not responding quickly.
There was a strong sense among these prior governors that the public had a right to know what was going on in the people's government.
Priddy's question at Nixon's news conference led me to ask why reporters no longer are allowed to talk with the Health Department's epidemiologist.
His response was a lengthy discourse about what he characterized as misleading and alarmist information being spread about Ebola.
"On health matters, having a consistent, appropriate, mature, verifiable position, not just getting somebody on the phone saying what they think is really important," Nixon said.
The problem with that response is that some of the agency spokespersons to whom we are limited have no expertise, understanding or background on the issues they're talking about.
A few years ago, the Health Department's information officer inaccurately told us that what was a relatively mild form of food poisoning in the St. Louis area actually was caused by one of the most antibiotic-resistant bacteria known.
The information was absolutely dead wrong. If the department spokesperson's inaccurate information had been reported, it could have led to the kind of public panic and fear Nixon says his policy is designed to prevent.
That's why we seek to talk with the experts, like the state epidemiologist. They know what they're talking about.
Before Nixon, the epidemiologist had been a key source for journalists to help us understand emerging infections and health concerns and report that information to the public.
That kind of access to government's technical experts extended well beyond short-term stories.
One of the highest national investigative reporting awards I've earned came from the extensive assistance of the state Mental Health Department director, Harold Robb.
He spent hours helping me understand the complexities of mental illness and mental health care.
Those series of reports led to fundamental changes in mental health care in Missouri that would not have been possible without that access to Robb and other medical experts in his department.
They were teachers for me. So too were the state penitentiary's warden, the administration's consumer affairs director, Kit Bond's first Revenue Department director, the Insurance Department director and so many others from administrations prior to Nixon.
That's an aspect I think Nixon does not understand. We journalists covering this process are eager students. We realize we are not experts everything. So, we week to learn and gain understanding from our sources.
Education, knowledge and openness: those are the real answers to the concerns Nixon voiced about giving reporters access to the officials and experts in his government.
Little is achieved from ignorance.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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