Government & Politics

‘Unethical’ actions by Missouri publisher in Greitens case spark press corps debate

Scott Faughn, the publisher of the Missouri Times, hosts a web show following the revelation that he paid the attorney of the ex-husband of Gov. Eric Greitens' alleged victim $50,000 prior to the invasion of privacy allegations against the governor becoming public.
Scott Faughn, the publisher of the Missouri Times, hosts a web show following the revelation that he paid the attorney of the ex-husband of Gov. Eric Greitens' alleged victim $50,000 prior to the invasion of privacy allegations against the governor becoming public. Scott Faughn/Twitter

News that the publisher of the Missouri Times paid thousands to the lawyer who publicized the allegations against Gov. Eric Greitens has reignited a debate over the paper’s status among the Capitol press corps.

Al Watkins, the attorney of the man who first went public with the allegations against Greitens, disclosed Monday at a deposition that he received $50,000 from Scott Faughn, the publisher of the Missouri Times and host of “This Week in Missouri Politics.” Watkins also received an equal payment from another source he identified only as Skyler.

Faughn’s newspaper and television show have both devoted significant coverage to the allegations against Greitens, but he did not disclose his financial relationship with the attorney until after Watkins was compelled to testify at a deposition by a judge.

Faughn said in a column posted to his site Thursday that the payment was for the audiotapes that Watkins' client had recorded of his ex-wife speaking about her encounters with the governor.

The financial relationship between Faughn and the lawyer, which remains murky, has sparked harsh criticism from other members of the Missouri media.

“I think it is one of the most violative actions in journalism standards that you can do,” said Phill Brooks, the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio in St. Louis. “You do not become an agent involving financial transactions in a story as big as the potential removal of office as a governor. … You just don’t do that. It’s as unethical as it can get.”

Faughn also drew the ire of St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger, who said on Twitter that the journalists working for Faughn were “now unfortunately tainted by his unethical behavior. He has damaged them and that is all on him.”

Faughn has not responded to phone calls from multiple Star reporters since Monday.

During a webcast Monday night, Faughn claimed that he had retained Watkins while working on a book about Greitens. He asserted that he had no conversations with the KMOV-TV reporter who broke the story shortly after his payment to Watkins.

He framed the book as a separate venture from his newspaper. He elaborated on this point Thursday and claimed that the money he paid Watkins was for the audiotapes.

"Because I had purchased them I could not use them in any newspaper I own or play them on my television show. I thought I made it clear Monday that I was his client but it’s obvious that I was not clear enough," Faughn said.

"My plan was to use them as source documents to attempt to get someone to speak to me to use as one of the central revelations in the book."

Watkins had previously told reporters that he thought this money and another anonymous cash payment were intended to cover the cost of the legal bills for his client.

Watkins said Thursday in an email that now that he is a witness in the case, he cannot comment in response to a question about the discrepancies between his account and Faughn's.

The tapes that Faughn claims to have purchased were widely circulated in the Missouri media without any costs attached by the time KMOV's initial story aired. The Star and other outlets had held back from publishing the allegations because the woman involved made it clear she did not want them made public.

Greitens’ attorneys have pointed to Faughn’s outspoken criticism of the governor's decision to halt a low-income housing grant program.

Faughn, in the column Thursday, pushed back on speculation that he had delivered the money on behalf of other interests.

"The money I used to buy the tapes was my money. There is no huge conspiracy, that is another lie and distraction tactic similar to last year when Eric Greitens told the world he was canceling the vacations of corrupt career politicians when in fact the legislature was adjourning as they are constitutionally required to. Or when Team Greitens said they never ever used the Mission Continues donor list for politics," Faughn said.

"The tapes cost a lot of money in my world, that is a reality, but it’s also a reality that the investment pales in the comparison to the money spent starting our television show, or our new newspaper in Clayton. In the end, I felt it was worth the cost because I’ve known about the Greitens organization from the start what many of you are only now coming to grips with."

Greitens has repeatedly blasted the media since taking office and has particularly objected to the coverage of the allegations against him in recent months. His team emphasized Faughn’s status as “a member of the Jefferson City media” in its reaction to his payment to Watkins.

Journalism experts say Faughn’s actions will help the governor in his effort to discredit media reports in general.

“The way it’s being directed makes it look like the paper is in bed with the source. .... And that would only further the governor’s argument that not only this member of the media is against him but all the members of the media are against him,” said Brett Johnson, a professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

Brooks said that the financial arrangement should cause the Missouri Capitol News Association to revisit whether Faughn’s paper should remain a member of the association, a collection of news outlets that includes The Star.

Unlike Kansas, where the House speaker and Senate president control credentialing for statehouse reporters, media outlets covering the Missouri Capitol do not require specific credentials.

But the Missouri Times’ membership in the association provides it with office space, parking and other government resources that are administered by the association.

Brooks participated in an unsuccessful effort to revoke the paper’s membership in 2015 after a Columbia Daily Tribune report that described parties that Faughn hosted in his Jefferson City apartment for lawmakers that included lobbyist-purchased liquor, beer and snacks.

“I think it also is a reflection on our refusal, failure to address what we had originally seen was presented to us a few years ago of this terrible conflict of interest Scott Faughn has as a participant in the political process,” said Brooks, who has covered the statehouse since 1970.

The association’s bylaws say membership can be revoked by a majority vote.

There is widespread angst in the Capitol press corps about Faughn’s actions, but the association, which meets rarely, has not gathered in the wake of the news to discuss his paper’s continued membership.

The bylaws state that members shall comply with “generally accepted standards of journalism” and that the resources provided by the association, such as office space, shall “not be used for lobbying efforts to influence governmental decisions that are not directly related to journalism.”

Johnson said that most media outlets have strict rules against “checkbook journalism.”

He compared Faughn’s arrangement with Watkins to the now-defunct website Gawker’s crowdfunding effort to pay for a video of then-Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack.

The difference is that Gawker was upfront about its intention to buy the video, while Faughn kept his financial arrangements with Watkins confidential, Johnson said.

“The one defense for checkbook journalism is that it’s being done in the public interest. … The more you hide that fact it does not help your cause,” said Johnson, who teaches a course in media ethics.

Sandy Davidson, who also teaches journalism at Mizzou, said Faughn should have disclosed his relationship with Watkins "so the viewer or listener can take that into consideration when trying to determine how much credence to lend to the information.”

Faughn, in his column Thursday, pushed back on the criticism he has faced from other media outlets.

"The bottom line is that the mainstream media mocked the start of The Missouri Times, they laughed at the folly that would be This Week in Missouri Politics and the entire time we keep growing and they keep laying people off," he said.

"I hear their mocking of me and of this book project. I’ve heard it all before. This simple hillbilly is used to their taunts and derision while we come up with innovative and profitable new media ventures all while getting sanctimonious condescension from those laying people off and declaring bankruptcy."