Monday, September 29, 2014

Billionaire's Conservative PAC Tries, Fails to Buy St. Louis Journalists

Posted By on Mon, Sep 29, 2014 at 7:00 AM

Rex Sinquefield, Missouri's version of the Koch brothers.
  • Rex Sinquefield, Missouri's version of the Koch brothers.

Grow Missouri, the conservative political-advocacy group founded entirely by a billionaire bent on paying less in taxes, recruited five Missouri journalists last week, offering $250 a pop to anonymously write one-sided political articles.

In an email that is completely deaf to the ethical code that prohibits journalists from accepting money from groups they cover, Grow Missouri representative Molly Berry -- who describes herself as a "crazy mother trucker, undercover lover" on Twitter -- offers to pay for blog posts "with a focus on tax reform, political news, family life in Missouri and Grow Missouri's 'Create a Great State' initiative" from reporters who cover state politics, including some from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Public Radio (90.7 FM).

The posts could be published without a byline, meaning a reporter could write anonymously for the group, pocket the money and then return to covering Grow Missouri or its funder, Rex Sinquefield, without disclosing a conflict of interest to readers.

See also: Bloomberg Labels Rex Sinquefield an "Oligarch"

"This particular offer had the rankest odor of anything I have encountered in my professional career," writes Rudi Keller, a reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune, about getting one of the recruitment emails.

Post-Dispatch statehouse reporter Alex Stuckey, who covers Grow Missouri and Sinquefield as part of her job, tweeted that she busted out laughing when she got the recruitment email and quickly released it online. Stuckey told Berry writing for Grow Missouri's blog would be "incredibly unethical -- especially if I wrote them anonymously," according to journalism blog Romenesko. St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jason Rosenbaum didn't respond to his recruitment email, which came before Stuckey's and didn't give him the option of writing anonymously. Matt Sanders at the Daily Tribune also received a recruitment email. Daily RFT is still looking into which reporter got the fifth email.

Berry's employer, communications firm Skyword Inc., sent apologies to St. Louis-based reporters Stuckey and Rosenbaum and apologized on its website:

As part of our work with Grow Missouri, we are contacting thoughtful, talented Missouri writers who are familiar with public policy in the state and how that policy impacts Missouri families. Today, as part of that outreach, a member of the Skyword recruitment team reached out to nine writers who had experience relevant to our client to assess their interest in participating in the program. Grow Missouri did not participate in the selection, vetting, approval or outreach to these writers. In an oversight, five of the writers that we contacted were news reporters that may cover Missouri politics. Going forward, we have amended our recruitment process for advocacy organizations to ensure we do not reach out to prospective writers who may be covering our clients' work.

It's nice to see an apology, but we're really not buying that a public-relations professional didn't realize that recruiting journalists to write anonymously was just not going to work. And we're not the only ones: Sinquefield, Missouri's version of the Koch brothers -- unbelievably wealthy men who use their money to influence politics -- paid $1.3 million to start Grow Missouri and fight against a veto of an income tax cut that would have padded his pockets, according to the Daily Tribune.

Here's the full email sent to Stuckey:

Hi Alex,

I would love to discuss a potential writing opportunity with you. I came across several of your articles on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website and I really like your work. We're currently working with Grow Missouri to create content for their blog. Based on your writing style and level of expertise, I think you would be a great fit.

The scope of the project would be 2-3 articles per month, on-going, with a focus on tax reform, political news, family life in Missouri, and Grow Missouri's "Create a Great State" initiative. It's also worth noting that although this is a political client, we're not aiming to create politically charged content.

Grow Missouri is offering to pay contributors $250 for bylined, or no byline if preferred, articles ranging from 500 to 700 words in length with the opportunity to earn more for special on-site projects. Please let me know if this is something of interest and if you have any questions regarding the program. I look forward to hearing from you!

All the best, Molly Molly Berry | Contributor Partnerships Specialist Skyword | Moving Stories. Forward. 25 Thomson Place|Boston, MA 02210 617.720.4000 ext. 1021 www.skyword.com

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at Lindsay.Toler@RiverfrontTimes.com.

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