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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL161.PRB - A Passing Era in the Missouri Auditor's Office«MDNM»
The two deaths in the state auditor's office mark, I fear, the passing of an era for Missouri statehouse reporters.
State Auditor Tom Schweich and his spokesperson, Spence Jackson, were among the most helpful, open, candid and friendly major state figures I have covered in recent years.
They displayed a deep respect for journalism and went out of their way to help reporters.
Schweich often dropped by our offices just to chat. I cannot remember the last time a statewide elected official would do that.
I had only one complaint about Schweich's approach with the press.
Rather than a group news conference when he had an audit to announce, he would keep himself free for most of the day for individual interviews with reporters.
He explained it was a less chaotic environment than a news conference with reporters competing to ask questions. And, besides, it let a reporter get an "exclusive" if a question was asked that no other reporter had thought of.
I never told Schweich that, for at least some of us, the policy was frustrating.
Unlike past decades, the statehouse press corps is not a very competitive body. We regularly help each other and share information.
Separate interviews rather than a group news conference can be frustrating because it requires each of us to fully read the audit and fully understand the background to ask meaningful questions.
The reality of the pace and number of stories we face on an average day interferes with giving as much time as one should for every possible story.
So, a collective news conference makes it easier to cut corners in order to concentrate attention on another story, but still attend the news conference to see if it generates a more important story.
Further, a large group of statehouse reporters with TV crews hauling cameras leaving a news conference to converge on the agency that had been audited puts more pressure on that agency for a response.
Since his death, I've wondered more than once what would have been Schweich's reaction if I had told him his one-on-one interview approach hampered our journalistic efficiency.
Jackson was a perfect match in Schweich's open approach to the news media.
A request from Jackson when he served as the communications director for Gov. Matt Blunt demonstrates Jackson's close relationship with reporters.
I regularly hold a reception at my home near the end of the legislative session for my student reporters and the statehouse press corps.
Jackson was the only spokesperson for a governor who asked to be there. He truly enjoyed being with reporters.
Although Jackson served the four full years of Blunt's term as secretary of state, that was not the case when Blunt became governor.
After less than two years as the governor's top public information officer, Jackson left to become a state agency communications director.
I do not know the reasons for the move, but I wondered whether Jackson's close relationships with reporters was a factor. It did not seem to fit with the suspicion of the news media held by Blunt and some of his top staffers.
There is a ironic ending twist to this story that arose just a few weeks before Jackson's death.
The man Gov. Jay Nixon named temporarily to replace the deceased auditor was Nixon's chief of staff when the veil of secrecy began to descend on state agencies -- blocking reporters from direct access to directors and experts of departments under Nixon's authority.
I had asked Jackson if we could have an interview with that new auditor, John Watson.
That was my last communication with Jackson. I never got an answer.
During all the years I had known Spence Jackson, it was the only time he failed to respond to a journalistic request from me.
It was clear that an era had passed in the state auditor's office.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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