The largest newspaper in South Carolina also happens to be its oldest and most historic – boasting a proud tradition of professional journalism that dates all the way back to 1803. And while you’d think preserving this proud tradition might matter to the current leadership of The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier… you’d be sorely mistaken. Over the last few years, this paper has chosen to completely abdicate its journalistic responsibility to pursue a shameful policy of appeasement.
And the body count from this ongoing sellout is starting to add up …
Within the last eight months, two aggressive young reporters at the The Post and Courier have been forced from their jobs after they published stories critical of powerful S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell – a shamefully corrupt “Republican in Name Only” who is currently under investigation by state authorities for a host of ethical abuses.
But it’s much worse than that, really. As we noted in this expansive report filed last October, Harrell isn’t just chasing away talented young investigative reporters – he’s literally holding an entire newspaper hostage (and quite possibly using tax money to buy its silence).
“TRUTH TO POWER?”
No longer does The Post and Courier speak “truth to power” on behalf of its readers. Instead, Bobby Harrell speaks power to its spineless editors – who in turn do his bidding (including terminating those reporters who have the audacity to try and hold him accountable for his many misdeeds).
Last year this website documented the shameful mistreatment heaped by the paper on the head of its former reporter Renee Dudley – who had the audacity to uncover the first of several major campaign finance scandals involving Harrell.
In September 2012, Dudley dropped a bombshell on the Palmetto political landscape when she reported that Harrell had improperly reimbursed himself in the amount of more than $325,000 from his campaign account over a four-year period (he has since returned $23,000 of the money, by the way).
Before the ink had even dried on Dudley’s report, though, the paper began a wholesale retreat in response to withering pressure from the Speaker’s Office.
First, its editors “spiked” (or killed) Dudley’s follow-up report on Harrell’s reimbursements – which we’re told provided additional damning details on the extent to which the Speaker was improperly profiting off of his campaign funds. But the paper didn’t just refuse to publish Dudley’s follow-up, it filed a report from a notorious “regurgitator” of political spin – Seanna Adcox of the Columbia, S.C. Associated Press bureau – that basically exonerated Harrell and slammed its own reporter’s work.
And that was just the beginning of the betrayal …
In the immediate aftermath of Dudley’s story, letters to the editor received by The Post and Courier were overwhelmingly critical of Harrell’s actions – but the paper’s editorial board chose to ignore these letters and instead highlight the handful of incoming submissions that were favorable to the Speaker (including one written by his own wife).
Not only that, The Post and Courier retroactively applied “errors” to Dudley’s reporting that she never committed – enabling Harrell to claim after the fact that she had “falsely accused (him) of violating the law.”
Hung out to dry by her colleagues, Dudley opted to give up her job and take a position with an out-of-state media outlet.
“Why would an independently owned paper – a so-called bastion of public integrity – permit any politician (no matter how powerful or popular) to push it around like this?” we wondered at the time. “What could have possibly compelled its editors to cede so much ground – and so much of their journalistic integrity – so quickly?”
“GO AND SMOOTH THINGS OUT WITH HIM …”
In Dudley’s aftermath, reporter Stephen Largen – another up-and-coming scribe at The Post and Courier – began doing his own digging into Harrell’s many scandals. What he soon found was seismic: Taxpayer-funded emails in which the Speaker placed pressure on a state regulatory board to take actions benefiting his pharmaceutical business.
That’s a flagrant violation of ethics law – and a scandal every bit as big as the reimbursement controversy exposed by Dudley.
What did The Post and Courier do with these emails? Nothing … in fact Largen’s editors sat on them for months before they were eventually published by a Columbia, S.C.-based blog in January of 2013. Undeterred, Largen continued to investigate the tips he was receiving on Harrell. He filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Speaker’s office and uncovered all sorts of incriminating documentation – including evidence that Harrell was double-dipping when it came to claiming travel reimbursements (and thus lying on his campaign finance disclosure forms).
Largen filed a detailed report exposing this scandal … yet once again his editors at The Post and Courier sat on the story.
In fact one source inside the paper tells FITS that at least three of Largen’s stories critical of Harrell were “spiked” by his editors.
“They just put them in the round file,” the source said, referring to a trash can.
Even when stories critical of Harrell managed to make it to print, they didn’t stay there for long. In early February of this year, for example, another reporter at The Post and Courier published a story questioning whether Harrell’s political action committee had illegally spent money on a public relations campaign for a controversial highway boondoggle.
Within minutes of the report appearing on the paper’s website, it was promptly removed – allegedly at Harrell’s insistence.
For Largen, the ride ended last month when the Speaker’s office finally got tired of him asking so many questions and filing so many FOIA requests. According to our sources at the paper, Largen’s editors asked him in early May go to Harrell’s office for an off-the-record sit down meeting with the Speaker.
One source recalls Largen as being told by his superiors to go and “smooth things out with (Harrell).” Another says he was actually told to “apologize” to Harrell for his aggressive pursuit of the various scandals. Understandably, Largen was reluctant to set up such an off-the-record meeting – or to ascribe any blame unto himself for simply doing (or in this case attempting to do) his job.
And so Largen declined to meet Harrell under those terms. Three days later- on May 8 – The Post and Courier fired him.
“SOMETHING GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES”
Since the beginning of this sad saga, speculation has swirled as to what The Post and Courier‘s underlying motivation has been in going to such lengths to protect Harrell. We’ve got a theory on that, but first let’s look at the editors and executives allegedly responsible for pursuing this policy.
Among those said to be guilty of accommodating Harrell on a regular basis are the paper’s metro desk editor Andy Lyons, its content editor Rick Nelson, its publisher P.J. Browning, editorial page editor Charles Rowe and, most notably, its “chairman of the board” – Pierre Manigault. The paper’s former publisher, Bill Hawkins – who left his post last October – is also said to have helped provide cover to Harrell.
Hawkins, incidentally, frequently traveled to the S.C. State House in an unregistered capacity to lobby lawmakers on behalf of a $13 million annual tax break provided to the state’s newspaper industry – an exemption Harrell’s equally corrupt crony, S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse (RINO-Charleston), is said to have held over the paper’s head in the past.
This exemption means the paper doesn’t have to levy a sales tax on its product – or pay sales tax on the paper it uses.
Is that what’s driving all this, though? The tax exemption money? Or are Harrell and his minions holding something else over the heads of these so-called “journalists?” We don’t know what else might be responsible for the paper’s appeasement policy, but one thing has become abundantly clear: Any reporter covering state government for The Post and Courier had better not cross the Speaker.
“It’s crazy the way we handle stories,” one of our sources at the paper said. “It’s very corrupt. With Harrell, there is definitely something going on behind the scenes.”
In fact we’re told the paper’s leaders apply a “double standard” to stories involving the Speaker – insisting on unreasonable levels of “proof” regarding allegations made against him while at the same time permitting Harrell’s office to stonewall reporters indefinitely without fear of a negative story being published.
“We go after Nikki (Haley) in a way we would never go after Bobby,” one source said. “The level of scrutiny on stories related to (Harrell) is much higher than it is for other elected officials. And Harrell and (his spokesman) know they can refuse comment and we won’t run the story. We would never let Haley or (her spokesman) get away with that.”
None of the editors accused of coddling the Speaker were willing to respond to our questions. And Largen – like Dudley before him – also declined to share his version of events with us.
“I can’t say anything about that,” he said when our founding editor finally tracked down his cell phone number. This six word non-statement was followed by a polite apology, a perfunctory “good-bye” and a click – the sound of yet another member of the Fourth Estate fleeing persecution in a shady-as-hell banana republic.
And that’s what all of this is really about, isn’t it? An ass-backward state which continues to fall further behind the rest of the country – all thanks to corrupt leaders who are never held accountable for their corruption by those whose job it is to do so.
We may never know precisely what motivated The Post and Courier to treat its own reporters so shamelessly, but one thing is clear: Until South Carolina’s newspapers start serving the people instead of prostituting themselves to duplicitous politicians like Harrell, this state will remain among the most corrupt and secretive in the nation.