Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has filed an open records request seeking correspondence between two journalism professors connected to the University of Missouri and the executive director of a fact-checking group.
In a move that appears to be unprecedented in Missouri, Schmitt, a Republican running for US Senate, filed a request in June asking for three years of emails sent and received by the professors while they worked at the Columbia Missourian.
Most correspondence generated at private media firms is not subject to the state’s open records law, but the Missourian could be because it is attached to the University of Missouri, which is a public entity.
The Missourian is not overseen by university officials, but most of its staff are students who are working for credits toward a journalism degree. The professional editors work as university faculty members.
David Kurpius, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, said the school has hired outside legal counsel to determine which emails could be released to the attorney general. Some records, such as those that identify students’ personal information, are protected by federal law.
Jean Maneke, attorney with the Missouri Press Association, said the request puts the university in “unchartered territory” because most public institutions do not have journalists attached. She was unaware of any similar requests in the past.
“There’s no clear instructions for what they should do when faced with these kind of parameters,” Maneke said.
The request was first reported by the Missourian, which discovered it after filing an unrelated open records request.
Schmitt’s spokesman, Chris Nuelle, said in a statement that the attorney general is “simply trying to get to the bottom of the fact checking process.” He declined to answer further questions.
Schmitt previously used open-records laws to seek copies of handouts, emails and other resources that address race from school districts as part of a push targeting “critical race theory.” He also opened a “transparency portal” to allow parents to see his efforts.
In the latest request, Schmitt is seeking any email correspondence starting June 15, 2018, sent to or from Mike Jenner, Tom Warhover, who previously worked with the Missourian, and Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact.
Warhover, an associate professor at the university, was executive editor at the Missourian for 16 years before resigning in 2017. Jenner, board member of the Missourian Publishing Association, a nonprofit that governs the Missourian, succeeded Warhover for about two years.
Warhover noted the fact-checking course involving PolitiFact hasn’t been offered for about 1 1/2 years. He did not see a similar request during his years at the Missourian.
“My initial and continuing reaction is one of confusion,” Warhover said. “What the attorney general would want with this is befuddling.”
Sharockman told The Missourian in an email statement that Politifact doesn’t use off-the-record information and publishes a list of sources with each story.
“Our methods and reporting are transparent, and we’d be happy to sit down with the attorney general at any time to discuss our work, or his ideas for continued accountability journalism,” he said.
Maneke noted the attorney general’s office is one of the primary entities that advises citizens and enforces the state’s Sunshine Law. In this case, Schmitt appears to be using the law as a “battering ram” against the university and journalists who are housed at the university, she said.
“It creates a real conflict in interest in what the attorney general is doing and how citizens view the office of attorney general as a Sunshine Law advocate,” she said.
Kurpius said the school will comply with whatever determination its legal team makes about which records should be released. He noted that the journalism school often uses the Freedom of Information Act and strongly supports open records laws.
“We also obviously believe in the process of journalism,” Kurpius said. “Fact checking, making sure we get things right is important in having the trust of the public we serve.”