COLUMBIA, SC — Tuesday, May 13 was what you might call a busy news day for Statehouse reporters in South Carolina.
In an unprecedented ruling the evening before, a judge in Columbia had told the state’s Republican attorney general, Alan Wilson, to shut down a grand jury investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a fellow Republican and arguably the Palmetto State’s most powerful politician. Now the AG was vowing to appeal the judge’s order and continue investigating a complaint into whether the Speaker had abused his power and used campaign donations for personal expenses. The Speaker was firing back, accusing the state’s top prosecutor of defying and ignoring the law himself by keeping up the probe.
It was fast-paced, consequential stuff, offering all the makings of good copy and compelling TV. But for one reporter in the state’s capital that morning, the unfolding events were particularly riveting.
“It’s no fun if we’re not in the fight,” said Rick Brundrett, editor of The Nerve, an online investigative newsroom, as he climbed the stairs to his second-floor corner office in a little brick house a few blocks from the copper-domed Statehouse.
His comment was laced with irony. By nearly all accounts, Brundrett, 51, is an old-school straight news reporter who spent 23 years working for traditional daily papers in Michigan and South Carolina, where he covered cops and courts. But since 2009 he’s been on the Statehouse beat for The Nerve, a news startup that operates out of the nonprofit South Carolina Policy Council—a controversial libertarian-leaning think tank that doesn’t disclose its donors. The affiliation has caused Brundrett to lose friends and longtime sources.
It has also created some unusual media dynamics, reflecting the increasing prominence of organizations that shape the news but also report it. Consider this disclosure to readers 13 paragraphs into Brundrett’s May 12 piece on the judge’s ruling:
The South Carolina Policy Council—the parent organization of The Nerve—in February 2013 submitted a public-corruption complaint against Harrell to Wilson, who referred it to SLED [the state police agency]. After a 10-month investigation, SLED submitted its report to Wilson, who announced in January that the case had been referred to the state grand jury, a division of the Attorney General’s Office, for further investigation.
In other words: It was a formal complaint filed by Brundrett’s boss, Policy Council president Ashley Landess, that kicked off the investigation behind the biggest story in state politics. “In the fight,” indeed.
The twists and turns of the Harrell-Wilson drama have been serious catnip for anyone who follows Southern politics. So far, in-state media have done a solid job reporting on the story, explaining its implications to readers and shining some necessary light into dark places. Brundrett has been right on the case, breaking some stories and tracking the latest developments of the investigation.
But when we met on Tuesday, I wondered about a different angle: What it’s like to be part of this newish breed of think tank journalists—one who is, in this case, in the eye of the storm, because of his boss’s role?
“It’s an interesting situation,” Brundrett acknowledged, though, he’s quick to add, “normally I’m not in this position.”
“The Nerve is not the propaganda arm of the Policy Council. We are a news site, so I’m covering it as a news story,” he continued. “But, that being said, I can’t ignore that our parent organization is the one that initiated this and I can’t ignore statements that have been made public by our president. I can’t ignore documents that were filed by the parent organization. I wouldn’t do that if I were a mainstream journalist, and I’m not going to do it here … I’m in, quote, ‘the alternative media’ world now, but I’m still doing what I consider to be traditional journalism and following traditional journalism practices.”
That’s an accurate description of his work, according to those have followed his writing through the years. And, though I wrote a pretty critical piece about the Policy Council shortly after it launched The Nerve a few years ago, it’s one I agree with. While I didn’t say so explicitly then, I worried, like others, that The Nerve and its writers would become weaponized journalistic functionaries of its parent organization. I’ve since come around. Brundrett’s copy can sometimes take a prosecutorial tone, but he plays it straight.