Laurel to The Principia Pilot

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Laurel to The Principia Pilot for truth-telling under difficult circumstances. When rumors began to circulate that CEO Stuart Jenkins, who oversees Principia College, had been given a big pay raise, editor Caitlin Carpenter began digging. She soon found out that not only were the rumors true, but two trustees had resigned in protest. The resulting January 2007 piece was a departure from the school-funded Pilot’s usual role of covering campus happenings at the five-hundred-student, Christian Science-affiliated school in southern Illinois. It became the first of a series of articles on the controversy. (The same issue carried the unexpected news that college president George Moffett, who served as the titular publisher of the Pilot, would resign at the end of the year—more on that in a bit.) While the CEO complained of “inaccuracy and bias,” the biweekly continued to break news and frame the resulting governance debate. In April, the Pilot published an editorial letting the campus know that its access to relevant information had been curtailed, and that the editors felt they were being discouraged from reporting on “controversial” topics. The tension came to a head just before graduation, when a tipster gave the paper e-mails exchanged among Moffett, Jenkins, and the board of trustees showing that Jenkins had worked to strip Moffett of his power shortly before his previously unexplained resignation. The editors published a special issue that included the smoking-gun e-mails. Moffett told CJR that the night before the issue was to be distributed, Jenkins demanded that the paper be held back. (Jenkins says he doesn’t recall the conversation, as it was “very late at night.”) At 6:30 the next morning, Moffett says a trustee rang his doorbell to deliver a letter from the board “implying possible financial sanctions against me if I allowed the paper to be distributed.” Moffett refused to step in, and the Pilot hit campus the next day. This fall, after the paper published a letter by a former trustee who claims that Jenkins manipulated accreditation data to make Moffett look bad, the school’s administration launched an inquiry that could cost the Pilot’s faculty adviser his job. Jenkins resigned October 18, but he leaves behind a new committee that is determined to ensure that the Pilot adheres to a list of as-yet-undefined “standards.”

Dart to Directorship, a boutique business publication aimed at corporate boards, for conflicted leadership. Former Forbes publisher Jeffrey Cunningham is the magazine’s owner, chairman, and sometime editor-in-chief. And he sits on several corporate boards. One of them is Countrywide Financial, the massive home-lending company now in shambles after its central role in the subprime mortgage meltdown. The magazine’s September issue carries a fawning interview Cunningham conducted with Countrywide’s CEO and founder, Angelo Mozilo (sample display copy: he “helped his customers realize their dreams by following his own”), without any mention of the two men’s business relationship, the company’s troubles, or its generous and controversial executive compensation—in 2006, Cunningham netted $369,308 from the company, and at year’s end had over $1.5 million in company stock. (After speaking with CJR, Cunningham amended the Web version of the article to reflect his board membership.) Cunningham also serves on the board of Jim Cramer’s; until a recent redesign, the magazine’s Web site showcased a video of a Directorship-sponsored speech Cramer gave—again with no disclosure of their business relationship. And in March 2006, the magazine carried a four-page interview with the CEO of Institutional Shareholder Services, a corporate research firm, without disclosing that Directorship was undergoing what Cunningham later characterized as “general business discussions” with the firm. In an interview, Cunningham suggests that a conflict of interest is “only relevant when one side benefits at the expense of another.” That’s an equation that leaves out readers.

Laurel to South Dakota’s Argus Leader for taking on the state’s antiquated public-records laws. When the paper wanted the guest list for the governor’s traditional glad-handing fall pheasant hunt, it had only one option: ask nicely. The state’s open-records law is so weak as to be almost nonexistent; it tied for last among the fifty states in a 2002 ranking by the trade group Investigative Reporters and Editors. But after the governor said no in December 2005, the Argus Leader filed a long-shot suit—as Jon Arneson, the paper’s attorney, gently put it, “I didn’t have a lot of law to go on”—arguing that it was time for the courts to reinterpret the statute, which hasn’t been substantially updated since 1939. After losing in circuit court, the state Supreme Court (or rather, a makeshift court of substitute judges empaneled after the five original justices, who presumably attended the hunt, recused themselves) ruled against the paper on September 13 and suggested it seek a legislative remedy. “As the largest news organization in the state, if we don’t fight the battle to the end, no one else will,” says editor Randell Beck. But with new transparency-friendly leaders in the state legislature, Beck is cautiously optimistic that by bringing attention to the cause, it may have been the right time to lose.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.