In an interview after she left, Bird told me she didn’t feel that she was growing professionally at The Post and Courier. In 2012, Bird broke a major story about an adoption case involving the federal Indian Child Welfare Act that became national news. (The US Supreme Court just issued a ruling in the case.) But “I never really felt like anyone was following it with me,” she said. “We had the best access, we had the best coverage. I guess I felt like it was just me working on it and I kind of felt like I’d have a team behind me.”
One of Bird’s colleagues at the P&C was Renee Dudley, 26, who worked the healthcare beat but also took the lead on investigative pieces involving powerful politicians. In 2011, Dudley reported a string of groundbreaking stories on Gov. Nikki Haley and was named the state press association’s Journalist of the Year in the daily newspaper category; the next year, she penned a series of exposes on the state’s House Speaker, Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican who is perhaps the state’s most powerful politician. (In the wake of her reporting, Harrell is now under a state police investigation into whether he used his public office for personal gain; he denies any wrongdoing.) Soon after the last of her stories on Harrell were published last fall, Dudley left the paper for Bloomberg News. She declined to comment for this story.
After Dudley’s departure, state government reporter, Stephen Largen, 27, delivered more aggressive reporting on the House Speaker and local power broker—covering Harrell’s campaign spending, personal travel, and private business, and penning a solid contextual piece about what a state police investigation into the powerful pol revealed about South Carolina’s “complex Statehouse politics.”
But Largen was fired in May. Neither he nor his former employers would talk about the circumstances on the record for this story. While workplace issues likely played a role, it seems clear that Largen’s strained relationship with the House Speaker and his staff—who didn’t appreciate some of his reporting—had something to do with it. The paper won’t replace Largen until the next legislative session begins in January, Pugh says.
From the outside, it’s hard to say whether this is a sequence of unfortunate events, or the sign of a newsroom that has a hard time supporting at least some of its aggressive, accountability-minded young reporters. After Largen’s firing, Will Folks—author of the political gossip blog FITSnews.com, and the state’s designated media attack dog—took the uncharitable view. Chris Haire, managing editor of the Charleston City Paper, took up the case for the defense:
Here’s the thing: The P&C hasn’t squashed much of anything when it comes to Harrell. In fact, this is where Will’s attack goes off the rails. The P&C has not only published a series of hard-hitting articles on Harrell and his apparent misdeeds, they were the first to report these stories. The State didn’t break them. The City Paper didn’t break them. And FITS News sure as hell didn’t break them.
In the end, of course, the coverage is what matters most; Haire is right that for the last couple years, the P&C has delivered important stories on state politics, including a key lawmaker in its own backyard (plus a lot of other good work).
But it’s fair to note that two of the reporters who were most aggressively reporting on the state’s House Speaker are gone—and that while the investigation into that lawmaker continues, the P&C has hardly reported on the case since a story filed by Largen more than two months ago, according to a search of the paper’s archives. It’s also worth pointing out that coverage next session from whoever winds up in Columbia with the State House beat is likely to draw much interest from politics junkies in the wake of Dudley and Largen’s departure.
Pugh—who joined the P&C after Dudley and Byrd left—did not respond to follow-up email questions this week about the paper’s record of developing young reporters. But during our interview, when asked directly if the paper is pulling punches with the Speaker of the House, he pushed back strongly.
“I don’t believe anybody that we cover thinks they’re getting any kind of break,” he said. “We’ve got some of the most aggressive watchdog journalists in the state, frankly, some of the only aggressive watchdog journalists in the state. I don’t think anyone feels they’re getting any kind of break from us.”