It’s been quite a month for truth-to-power accountability journalism at the Mississippi Free Press, culminating when reporter Nick Judin strode into a GOP legislative caucus meeting on March 14, causing shock and a bit of panic, and then was asked to leave. As we knew he would be. Shoe-leather journalism, and getting kicked out of what should be public spaces filled with sunshine, is often the only way to bring attention to the lack of transparency that those in power tend to love, even when they say the opposite. It’s also a way to create a record of being shut out and is necessary to transparency stories. And if you don’t challenge it, the secrecy never ends.
It’s no secret, of course, that lawmakers have discussed and decided much policy in party caucuses in the Capitol in recent years, especially at House Speaker Philip Gunn’s direction, even as he has ironically called for government transparency over the years. The majority party’s members all crowd into one or another room with no one else allowed, discuss their shared position and, clearly, Gunn’s wishes. They then come out and spend very little time, if any, discussing their reasoning publicly and then hearing back from their actual bosses, the people of Mississippi.
This is not how open government works, even as Mississippi law, traditions and power have long allowed too many public servants to operate this way in one way or the other, whether with closed meetings or rules that make viewing documents too expensive or onerous. Even if you challenge it, it’s a crap shoot over whether it changes, at least right away.
But core to the practice of good journalism is challenging the lack of sunshine. No one had bothered to do anything about the caucus situation or challenge it until Nick and I decided about two months ago that we should establish a record of him being denied (or maybe they’d let him in, but of course not.) He first called Gunn’s office on Feb. 2 and left a message requesting entry to caucus meetings. But no response to that message and a follow-up call.
The morning of March 14, we got a tip about the room where the caucus would meet that day, So Nick got dressed in a suit, slicking back his ponytail, and walked into the room, greeted with shocked faces. HOW DARE HE cross the forbidden threshold!? While recording, he politely said he was there as a reporter and was told he couldn’t be. He asked the staff and then Speaker Gunn himself in the appalled room if the meeting was covered under Mississippi’s open-meetings law.
“NO!” various lawmakers called out to him, including the speaker. So Nick politely left—with a solid record of being denied access to a GOP caucus meeting in one way or another. Then, he had grounds to file a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which he has done as the first to do so, or to pursue other remedies if that doesn’t pan out.
Put simply: We and any good journalists worth their salt believe that legislators gathering en masse in a statehouse room and discussing how to vote as a bloc is the very definition of what should open-meetings law should force into sunlight. Of course, this is Mississippi, and various elected judges may not agree. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
This sunshine dust-up, which other Mississippi journalists followed up after either hearing about Nick’s ousting or seeing his story about it on March 21 came amid another controversy for Speaker Gunn that Nick’s work illuminated back on March 3—that he was threatening to withhold federal pandemic relief funds if his income-tax elimination bill didn’t pass. Nick’s truth-to-power reporting, that is, has driven the recent news cycle in Mississippi, with other media picking up his threads (cheers to them). And in this March 21, 2022, MFP Voices column, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Republican leader of the Mississippi Senate, even weighed in on Gunn’s threat to withhold federal pandemic relief funds until his (and ALEC’s) income-tax elimination plan passed. In the last few days, amid intense bi-partisan scrutiny, Gunn backed down from both withholding the pandemic funds and demanding full income-tax elimination.
Shining light where it needs to be, especially toward the powerful gatekeepers, is exactly what real accountability journalism is supposed to do, and what is desperately needed in our state. Rampant in Mississippi is compliant access journalism—including sending questions in advance, aka email “interviews”—that focuses on palace intrigue rather than context, outside influences (such as ALEC) instead the people of Mississippi who should director elected officials in the needs to address. Remember that one political party controls nearly everything here, including access for media to even ask a single direct question of a state official, even as our state is crumbling, county-by-county, bridge-by-bridge, school-by-school, sewer-by-sewer, problems that don’t shrink in the face of partisanship.
Make no mistake: Transparency and accountability are not about one political party; much of this decay was starting or well under way when the state still had bipartisan leadership and was obsessing over “jackpot justice” 20 years ago under governors of both major parties (and helped by one-sided Mississippi journalism sensationalism) instead of figuring out how to keep our towns and schools strong and our roads and bridges safe and available.
Power is power, and it always deserves more sunshine, not less. All Mississippi Free Press journalists believe in that principle and, like Nick Judin in recent weeks, will try to bring you the information others would rather you not have. This is exactly what truth-to-power means, and we’re dedicated to it.
Thank you, as always, for your astounding support for two years now. We’ve only just begun.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.