Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmidt filed an open records request seeking correspondence between two journalism professors affiliated with 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 candidate for the U.S. Senate, filed a request in June asking for three years of emails sent and received by the professors while working at the Columbia Missourian.
Most correspondence created at private media companies is not subject to the state’s open records law, but the Missourian may be because it is affiliated with the University of Missouri, which is a public body.
The Missourian is not overseen by university officials, but most of its staff are students working for credit toward a journalism degree. 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 shared with the attorney general. Some records, such as those identifying personal student information, are protected by federal law.
Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said the request puts the university in “uncharted territory” because most public institutions don’t have reporters. He was not aware of similar requests in the past.
“There are no clear guidelines on what to do when faced with these kinds 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 has previously used open records laws to seek copies of pamphlets, emails and other race-related resources from school districts as part of a push aimed at “critical race theory.” He also opened a “transparency portal” to allow parents to see his efforts.
In the latest request, Schmitt seeks any email correspondence since 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 stepping down in 2017. Jenner, a board member of the Missourian Publishing Association, a nonprofit organization that governs the Missourian, succeeded Warhover for about two years.
Warhover noted that the fact-checking course involving PolitiFact has not been offered for about 1 1/2 years. He didn’t 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 confusion.”
Sharockman told The Missourian in an email statement that Politifact does not use off-the-record information and publishes a source list with each story.
“Our methods and reporting are transparent, and we would 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 that 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 “crime” against the university and the journalists housed at the university, he said.
“It creates a real conflict of interest in what the attorney general does and how citizens view the attorney general’s office as an advocate of the Sunshine Law,” he said.
Kurpius said the school will comply with whatever its legal team decides about which records should be released. He noted that the journalism school frequently uses the Freedom of Information Act and strongly supports open records laws.
“We also obviously believe in process journalism,” Kurpius said. “Checking the facts, making sure things are done right is important to having the trust of the public we serve.”