When the governor of Missouri uttered strange words two months ago about using the Missouri State Highway Patrol to criminalize journalism, most of us thought he was just blowing off some steam.
Last week Governor Mike Parson doubled down publicly on his intention to pursue an investigation of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter for an October 14 investigative story that embarrassed his administration. The piece by reporter Josh Renaud had revealed that the Social Security numbers of more than 100,000 teachers were compromised by a flaw on the website of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
I attempted to contact Renaud but was referred to Joe Martineau, an attorney at Lewis Rice who represents the Post-Dispatch. Martineau declined to discuss details of the case but did confirm that the highway patrol had indeed opened the investigation and had interviewed Renaud.
Wow. Parson wasn’t bluffing when he threatened to take the extraordinary step of deploying a law-enforcement agency under his command to get back at that dang reporter. Vladimir Putin is green with envy.
No public official in America gets to abuse power vested in them to investigate, punish or intimidate a journalist. Not a president, not a governor, not a mayor, not anyone possessing authority over law-enforcement resources.
Freedom of the press is firmly ensconced in the Bill of Rights, right there in the First Amendment, the one Parson skips over every night as he rereads the Second Amendment before turning in. Governors don’t get to sic police on reporters who write stories they don’t like. Full stop.
There’s a word for this: tyranny. Not the watered-down, diminished “tyranny” that random idiots misapply to public-health orders designed to save lives. No, this is the “oppressive ruler” or “cruel master” version from which the term evolved.
The government doesn’t lock up journalists over their journalism in America. But didn’t we already know that?
One of the terrible repercussions of the 24/7 news cycle is that it robs people of perspective. Both sides of the Great Divide traffic in constant outrage and hyperbole to the point everyone becomes the boy who cried wolf when a real catastrophe arrives.
If routine affronts are routinely labeled existential, what are people supposed to call the existential ones? What happens when a fire drill cannot be distinguished from a real blaze?
Parson’s instinct to prosecute a journalist is the governmental equivalent of a forest fire. This wrongdoing on his part must stand apart from the noise.
It would have been bad enough had Parson sought judicial relief by suing the Post-Dispatch based on his cockamamie assumptions. For that, however, the governor might have needed to enlist the services of Attorney General Eric Schmitt, and he’s preoccupied suing school districts and drowning liberals’ puppies.
But Parson did not do that. He violated all principle and precedent and called in the highway patrol’s Digital Forensic Unit to do his political dirty work (along with the Cole County prosecutor).
It is almost incidental to the story that Parson is thoroughly wrong about the facts of the case. His slanderous description of Renaud as a “hacker” was just stunning for its “English as a second language” feel, even by the governor’s standards.
Hackers don’t customarily advise the “hackees” that they might want to fix what’s wrong as a professional courtesy. That’s precisely what Renaud and the newspaper did by alerting the state to the problem and then holding up publication of the story so that it didn’t cause harm.
That uncommon journalistic good deed was apparently going to garner a letter of thanks — based on a draft email — from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven, according to a subsequent Post-Dispatch report. Somehow, that never saw the light of day.
In case you’re puzzled as to why, look no further than the quasi-literate statement Parson made about Renaud at his initial press conference on the matter: “This individual is not a victim. They were acting against the state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information in an attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet.”
Not sure where to start here. Setting aside that annoying syntax thing, did Parson say the quiet part out loud by accusing the suddenly plural Renaud of having tried “to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet”?
So, that’s the theory of the case. What’s the crime here? Simple. Why, he “embarrassed the state.” As for the governor dismissing a solid piece of investigative journalism as “selling headlines for a news outlet,” well now that’s embarrassing the state.
But that pales next to the scary-stupid assertion by Parson that Renaud was “acting against the state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information.” Really? By publishing a story for the obvious purpose of un-compromising the information?
What is wrong with this guy?
Now, being of a certain age — like me — Parson might be forgiven for not having known the difference between words like “encoded” and “encrypted.” But he ought to know there are people out there who could have explained it to him, like Shaji Khan, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a state institution as luck would have it.
Here’s what the Post-Dispatch attributed to Khan when the story broke in October:
“The data on DESE’s website was encoded but not encrypted. No one can view encrypted data without the specific decryption key used to hide the data. But encoded just means the data is in a different format and can be relatively easily decoded and viewed.
“Anybody who knows anything about development — and the bad guys are way ahead — can easily decode that data,” Khan said. He added that the bigger problem was that DESE had the sensitive data on the website at all.
So, the technical explanation is that Renaud did not employ any sort of aggressive or intrusive or improper action to ascertain the data flaw that jeopardized the privacy of all those teachers. Just as important, that’s the common-sense explanation as well.
What Parson has done by initiating his criminal investigation of a journalist for embarrassing him is far more impeachable than the epic sleaziness of his predecessor, the disgraced Eric Greitens. He is a lucky man that the General Assembly is overwhelmingly controlled by his political party.
Parson is the same governor who has spent nearly two years insisting that it would represent government overreach to enact public-health regulations to combat the spread of COVID-19, as the vast majority of states not named Missouri have done. More than 15,700 Missourians have died during the pandemic.
But Parson has moved on from that. There’s a journalist who needs locking up, after all.
Someone, please hack into a U.S. Constitution for this man.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).