A 40-year statehouse reporter’s exit interview

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — As the Missouri legislature reconvened this week, there was a conspicuous absence in the Jefferson City press corps. Bob Priddy of Missourinet retired last month after a celebrated 40-year career covering the Show-Me statehouse for the radio network’s 60 affiliates. Priddy has made his mark in Missouri not only as a journalist but also as a historian and a crusader for open government. In the process, he has won the respect of his colleagues and the politicians he covered—including Sen. Claire McCaskill, who says she was “afraid” of Priddy when she came to Jeff City as a young state representative in the early 1980s.

“If you want to know the real way to make Bob Priddy mad, refuse to talk to him, because then you’ve got trouble,” said McCaskill, speaking at a retirement dinner given in Priddy’s honor last fall. “He will forgive you a cheesy answer that doesn’t really answer the question every once in a while. He will forgive you not knowing the answer to his question. What is unforgivable is to freeze out journalists who have a duty and an obligation to report to the people what is actually going on.”   

Priddy’s impatience with government secrecy and obfuscation has not faded as he has eased into retirement. In fact, he says, government transparency in Missouri “is the worst it’s been, ever.” Both pessimistic and passionate when it comes to the future of his profession and his home state, Priddy spoke with me this week about his career, the precarious state of statehouse reporting, the uphill battle for transparency, and the prospects for state legislative action in response to Ferguson. Here’s an edited record of our discussion:

I’m curious what you think about the state of statehouse reporting now compared to earlier in your career. We have seen reports about dwindling statehouse coverage across the country. Is that the pattern you have seen in Missouri?

When we started Missourinet [in 1974], there were two wire services. There was United Press International and the Associated Press. Well, UPI still exists, but it’s not a factor here in Missouri at all.

We used to have two newspapers in Kansas City and two newspapers in St. Louis. Well, the [St. Louis] Globe-Democrat’s gone and the Kansas City Times is gone. Springfield news media used to be here year-round; now they send somebody up for the session. I don’t know if they have somebody here yet for this session because the guy who covered the last two has gone somewhere else.

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St. Joseph and Joplin and Cape Girardeau have in the past had people here in Jefferson City covering the legislature and often here more or less year-round. They’re not here anymore. [Note: Journalist Eli Yokley, editor in chief of the website PoliticMo, contributes statehouse coverage to The Joplin Globe.]

Let me address the broadcast industry too. Other than the television stations here in Central Missouri, in Columbia and Jefferson City, we almost never see anybody from the metropolitan areas, from Kansas City or St. Louis or Springfield for that matter, come up here to do any kind of live coverage or even have stringers to do things for them from the Capitol. The general feeling, I think, is that this isn’t sexy enough for television and this isn’t really the kind of thing they want to make the investment in, because it’s 125 miles or so from either of our big metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Kansas City.

That’s really unfortunate, because what happens in Jefferson City with the legislature and with state government is a local news story. The bills might be presented here, but what happens with those bills impacts the people in Kansas City and St. Louis and Springfield and Joplin and St. Joe and all of the cities in between.

There’s a lot of consultants who will go around and [say]—as one consultant told us very early on, “Politics is too boring, too mundane and too complicated for people to care about.” Well, that is a bunch of hogwash.

The failure is not that people are bored by it. The failure is, these people are asking the wrong questions. When they go around and they ask folks, “Do you want to hear news about government?” people are going to say, “Hell, no.”

But if you ask them, “Do you want to hear news about the quality of the water you drink, the quality of the air you breathe, the nursing home care your grandparents get, the education your children are going to get, how safe your streets are?” people are going to be interested in that.

But it’s not easy to tell that story. It’s a lot easier to go out and shoot some video of a chalk outline on a street.

What has changed about the legislature itself over the years?

We have at least three factors at work in Missouri that we did not have when we first started the Missourinet. 

The first is term limits. I don’t think the intellectual level of the legislature is near where it was before term limits. Part of that is because people don’t have enough time to stick around to really learn what needs to be done—or for that matter, even learn how to draft an amendment to a bill.

We also have seen a rising influence of the lobbyists. Lobbyists have always been a matter to deal with in the legislature, they’ve always had their powers, they’ve always been influential. But now the situation is such that a few years ago, I remember hearing one member of the legislature inquire of another member of the House or the Senate during debate—if an amendment is offered, somebody would ask the sponsor of the amendment, “Have you checked with so-and-so out in the hall to see if this is OK?” Which gives rise to the question of who’s really in charge.

Now they don’t even do that, because they have their BlackBerries or other texting devices in their hands. And I have seen members of the legislature looking at the messages they’re getting on their devices while they are debating an issue. So the rules about lobbyists not being in the chamber—those rules mean not physically, but the lobbyists are in the chambers now and they’re very influential.

The other factor that’s involved here is the fact that Missouri has no limits on campaign donations. Its laws on requiring the reporting of expenditures of funds by lobbyists on behalf of legislators are not as strong as they need to be. We have laws that allow big donors, even small donors for that matter, to hide their identities by making donations through various committees, which then donate to other committees and other committees and so on, so that there’s no reporting of the person who originated the money. Right now, because we have no campaign donation limits, we have no limits on what legislators can take while they are in session from lobbyists or others, we see this enormous impact of money and influence.

The legislature right now is in the worst shape I have ever seen it.

Over the years, you’ve played an important role in opening up the workings of Missouri’s government—for instance, by advocating for cameras in judicial chambers. But despite the success of such efforts, you said in an interview recently that government transparency in Missouri is about as bad as it’s ever been at this point, under Gov. Jay Nixon.

The continued erosion of access to the people who have the information that reporters need to do the stories that need to be done is just appalling. I think it started with Bob Holden when he was governor, it got worse under Matt Blunt, and now it’s just ridiculous under Jay Nixon.

We’ve got too many people in state government who can parrot the press release, and they can’t give you anything further than that and give you any further details or background or information that will flesh out a story or make the story more meaningful.

When I started in Jefferson City in 1967, we could walk into [the press secretary’s] office and say, “We need to get a comment from the governor,” and he’d walk into the governor’s office and say, “Can you talk to these people for a few minutes?”

Nowadays we have a communications office, we have a communications director, we have a press secretary, and we have God-knows how many people in the Nixon communications office. And the only problem with that is that it’s not a communications office at all, it’s a stonewall office. And this is the worst it’s been, ever. And frankly I’m not sure that whoever takes Nixon’s place in a couple of years is going to be any better.

Looking ahead, even though it’s not your problem anymore, do you have any sense of what the biggest stories of this year’s legislative session are going to be?

There’s been a lot of talk about ethics. There’s been certainly a lot of talk about something being done after Ferguson. The question is what is going to be done after Ferguson.

There’s a lot of people who are going to want to make a lot of speeches and there’s going to be a lot of stuff thrown around. But I would be surprised if anything really substantial comes out of this legislative session. There’ll be a lot of fuss and feathers, but I don’t think anything really earth-shattering, earth-changing is going to come out of the session.

And frankly, come May, some people in Ferguson are going to look around, and I just have some doubts that they’re going to feel like the legislature accomplished anything for them.

In some ways you’ve presented a fairly pessimistic picture of the state of journalism and governance on your way out the door. Is there any good news or advice you might have for young journalists who have to navigate all these new challenges?

Being a reporter, I think, is one of the greatest things in the world. I can’t think of anything I’d have rather done with my life than to have been doing what I’ve done.

There’s always going to be a need for people doing the kinds of things that I have done for the last 40 years. They’re essential to the American system, and I think that we have to have people who have the commitment, who have the passion, who have the love of the spoken word and the written word. We have to have those people there working on behalf of the public—or whatever part of the public wants to pay attention to what is really going on.

There’s a lot of things to be pessimistic about, but there’s still a lot of hope and a lot of opportunities here for people to make some changes as they grow into the industry and as they become leaders in the industry.

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.

TOP IMAGE: Bob Priddy on the state of Capitol coverage and what's wrong with Missouri's government