DOSSIER: Two Faces of Mississippi Powerhouses; Meek Strikes Back | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

DOSSIER: Two Faces of Mississippi Powerhouses; Meek Strikes Back

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, right, shakes hands with Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Now, Giuliani is Donald Trump's attorney, and Kurt Volker, an associate at Barbour's lobbying firm, BGR Group, are central figures in a presidential impeachment inquiry. (AP Photo/Joseane Daher)

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, right, shakes hands with Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Now, Giuliani is Donald Trump's attorney, and Kurt Volker, an associate at Barbour's lobbying firm, BGR Group, are central figures in a presidential impeachment inquiry. (AP Photo/Joseane Daher)

When former Republican stalwarts from Mississippi want to get a talking point onto the ground back here in their home state, all they have to do is get on the phone with a news outlet not likely to challenge or contextualize their statements, or even include the high-powered lobbying job they do now in the resulting piece.

Put another way, regardless of controversies they have found themselves embroiled in nationally, or even right here in Mississippi, power brokers like former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott can always find a sympathetic, or least non-questioning, ear back in the Magnolia State. Here, too often collegiate choice (especially Ole Miss), fraternity (especially SAE and Sigma Nu) and proximity to piles of green (even if it came from Moscow) mean it’s easy to talk down to Mississippians through the medium of the state’s press.

You could call it the heart and privilege of being a good ole Mississippi boy. You open your mouth, and everyone forgets you’re a lobbyist for foreign nations and corporations. Or you sign a horrifically discriminatory law that allows discrimination against LGBT people (and opens the door to anti-miscegenation views all over again), and you still get invited to the Christmas or launch parties. You might even get to hug up to a national network news poobah about a month after signing such a law, if you’re lucky.

Mississippi Lobbyists, Associates in Thick of Trump’s Ukraine-Russia Web

Donna Ladd and Nick Judin wrote an explainer on the Mississippi connections to the Trump impeachment inquiry.

This pandering to our less-than-best leaders isn’t a new problem for Mississippi, but it came to a dramatic head on Sept. 24 within hours of Nancy Pelosi announcing an impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump for trying to get a foreign leader begging for U.S.-made missiles to go ahead on and investigate one of his political opponents.

New JFP investigative fellow Nick Judin and I wrote a big explainer on the impeachment mess (and Mississippi connections) that dropped Wednesday. In that story, among many other revelations, we talk about what happened the evening of Sept. 24 in Mississippi when former Majority Leader Lott told a Ridgeland-based news website that impeachment could "backfire" for Democrats.

Now, it’s not exactly news that Lott, as a blood-red Republican, would oppose impeachment. But the journalistic omission was jarring—the piece never mentions that Lott has been an extremely well-paid lobbyist for years, including his firm's work for the Kremlin, and it only quotes other Trump-loving Republicans from the state.

Republicans don't want Trump impeached and especially, I'd posit, not over activities in the Russia-Ukraine morass. Stop the presses! Ding, ding!

The site’s only other story on the impeachment to date is about how impeachment could hurt Democrats, leading with Phil Bryant addressing the importance of a Trump endorsement for the Mississippi GOP candidate for governor (which was then the lead story for at least a day on the site when the inevitable happened). Maybe I've missed it, but a Mississippi Democrat supporting impeachment, like U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, isn't quoted at all, although he released this statement the day Pelosi announced impeachment. That's just weird, no?

Here’s the thing: These men should not control or dominate the narrative about impeachment or anything else in Mississippi, even if they long have. This state's residents deserve to know that men we have elected to high-level posts in the past lobby for Russia, Ukraine or the Saudi Royal Family, or the makers of the missiles Ukraine wants, for that matter—or if their associates do or if any of them have in recent decades, years and months. We deserve context. We deserve facts. Different viewpoints deserve a voice. We deserve to know about the various faces of men and women who have benefitted from our voters’ pocketbooks over the years—not just the public face that serves their own spin.

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Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is a lobbyist with Squire Patton Boggs and has lobbied for a Russian bank and the Saudi Kingdom in recent years. He says Trump’s impeachment will be bad for Democrats. Photo courtesy U.S. Senate.

This applies regardless of party. (See our story for more on the Biden family in Mississippi, too.) While you're there, study up on the history of the lobbying and political histories of Lott, Barbour and associates. Be sure to click on the links.

Is ‘Lobbyist’ a Banned Word in Mississippi Media?

When that website’s political reporter had Lott on the phone, Lott-the-lobbyist seized the opportunity to endorse the former politician he hoped would become the next chancellor at Ole Miss—former U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, who left Congress amid a scandal involving an affair, a detailed journal and a bizarre conservative “family” in Washington, D.C., none of which was mentioned either. The story lists all the candidates who remained then and included Lott’s endorsement of Pickering, although oddly did not quote other people endorsing other chancellor candidates.

"We need a very strong leader who can promote a positive image of the state, one that will be able to work with the alumni and can be respected and work with the students and faculty," Lott told the site, apparently about Pickering.

That piece did not mention Lott’s lobbying job or include that Pickering himself was a partner in Capitol Resources from 2009 to 2013, which employs lobbyists in nine southern states, as well as its Washington, D.C., office, its website shows. At the firm started by younger Barbours, Pickering lobbied for the telecommunications industry, in which he also specialized in Congress. Currently, LinkedIn shows that Pickering is the CEO of Comptel in Washington, a trade association of the telecommunications industry.

Incidentally, Pickering’s father Charles, a controversial judge with a complicated past on race issues who sat on the board of Alliance Defending Freedom (designated a “hate group” due to its anti-LGBT positions including criminalizing homosexuality), is on the advisory board of the Ridgeland website. ADF attorneys also helped Gov. Bryant defend HB 1523 in the courts.

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Stories about Mississippi's House Bill 1523, the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Religious Discrimination Act"

To the site’s credit, it did mention that another University of Mississippi chancellor candidate, Jim Barksdale, was one of its founding donors and on its board. The piece said his application for the chancellor position at his alma mater came in too late for IHL consideration.

'He Wasn’t a Barbour or Bryant Man'

Meantime, today, protests erupted in Oxford, Miss., over the Institutions of Higher Learning’s quick choice of Glenn Boyce last night as chancellor, with an apparent press announcement cancelled as a result of protests this morning, followed by an email officially announcing Boyce's appointment. The Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper, wrote a scathing editorial this morning with a one-word headline: "Bullshit."

"Today’s news that Glenn Boyce will be the next chancellor is a thinly veiled attempt to exclude students, staff and faculty from a pivotal decision, but under further review, is exactly what it looks like: a sham," the editorial stated. "The board supposedly represents democratic values. That is a farce. When a small group of individuals—appointed by a single governor—chooses for a large community of people, it is nothing other than undemocratic. This is especially true when the choice for a new chancellor was directly involved in the quasi-search process."

I ran across fascinating perspective on the politics of the UM chancellor position today, by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who was the last Democrat who has held that position since Haley Barbour of the BGR Group came back to Mississippi and defeated him in 2003.

Musgrove's defeat came despite a re-election campaign embrace of Barbour's signature tort-reform issue, although Gov. Barbour's version would go much further, thanks in no small part to juicy Clarion-Ledger headlines about "jackpot justice" in poor black Delta towns, while ignoring reporting elsewhere about the need to balance lawsuit limits with insurance reforms, which the tort lobby and their clients decidedly did not want. The ultimate effect of the bad reporting and subsequent legislation? Less campaign money for Democrats and more for Republicans, helping both solidify a conservative judiciary here (supported by the U.S. Chamber) and, now, a Republican supermajority in the Legislature that just reaches out and takes over the majority-black capital city's airport, ripe with economic potential for the takers, and just sneaks in money for school vouchers at the last minute. Who's going to stop them in the era that Haley Barbour's strategy created?

The same goes for handpicking university chancellors, it seems. Musgrove wrote the piece for Huffington Post back in 2015 about the controversy then over ousted Chancellor Dan Jones, considered more of a progressive on race issues. Such a slap at Ole Miss tradition did not please all alumni, of course, many of whom still have an exiled Colonel Reb dance at their wedding receptions and the like. (Seriously, I've seen it. Eek.)

"Without missing a beat, he returned to his pre-gubernatorial position as head of Washington, DC lobbying firm, the BGR Group," Musgrove wrote of Barbour.

Hoodwinked! Tort Reform's Political Saga in Mississippi

How "tort reform" succeeded in Mississippi—a mixture of political finger-pointing, scare tactics and one-sided reporting about "jackpot justice."

"(Barbour) also took an equity position at the law firm, Butler Snow, in Ridgeland, MS—a suburb of the state’s capitol (sic) of Jackson," Musgrove continued. "When Barbour left office, Butler Snow was the third largest law firm in town. Since then, Butler Snow has taken hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts. Now they are one of the largest firms in the nation. Their offices are a who’s-who of former and future gubernatorial appointments. Their roster of attorneys includes Barbour’s former Chief of Staff, Governor Bryant’s daughter, US Senator’s Wicker’s daughter and her husband - who also happens to be Governor Bryant’s former Chief of Staff and campaign manager for Senate Appropriations chair Sen. Thad Cochran."

Musgrove added: "Butler Snow got the contract to redraw the state legislative map during redistricting. And to the shock of no one, Butler Snow’s favored candidates came out on top. Butler Snow could be considered the ‘for-profit’ arm of our state government."

That meant, Musgrove wrote, that Jones was a political outsider when it comes to the traditional power base in Mississippi. And Ole Miss is among state universities that are "major revenue generators," as he put it.

"Hundreds of millions—if not billions—flow through their hallowed halls in legal fees for health care contracts, research grants, bond issuances, buildings contracting, the list is too long to count," Musgrove said. "Even in a poor state that chronically underfunds education, we’re talking a mountain of untapped billable hours for a firm like Butler Snow."

Mississippi, Ole Miss and the Brexit Boys

The JFP’s coverage of an odd band of compatriots working together in Mississippi.

"Dan Jones was standing at the gates of a gold mine, but he wasn’t a Butler Snow man. He wasn’t a Barbour or Bryant man."

Meek’s Revenge on Ole Miss

Speaking of Ole Miss and controversy, I ran into Ed Meek whose name used to grace the University of Mississippi journalism school until he disparaged young black women in Oxford on Facebook. He was in the audience for the screening at Judy Meredith’s documentary, “Who Is James Meredith”?, at Two Museums in Jackson on Wednesday. He stood up and remarked that he was thrilled that the Merediths’ granddaughters were attending Ole Miss.

On Sept. 20, the news website Meek founded and ran in Oxford, Hoddytoddy.com, reported that he was moving his $5.3 million endowment (which is why the j-school had been named after him) away from the University of Mississippi to the CREATE Foundation in Tupelo, which has run nonprofit media as far back as the early 1970s before it became a trend in recent years. It has long owned the print newspaper, the Daily Journal, and even the printing press that now prints the Jackson Free Press.

Oddly, the HottyToddy.com reporter didn't mention Meek's history with that website.

Apparently, Meek was in on early plans for Mississippi Today, even suggesting the name, I'm told—which is apparently a nod to USA Today in the site’s long-stated goals of remaining neutral and nonpartisan. That is ironic, considering that the Gannett Corp., which owned The Clarion-Ledger until Gatehouse Media took over the parent corporation recently (retaining the name), owns USA Today. Confused, yet?

We, by the way, named the Jackson Free Press for the Mississippi Free Press, a Civil Rights Movement newspaper started by hero Medgar Evers, Rev. R.L.T. Smith and friends, and printed by white newspaper editor and owner Hazel Brannon Smith. Along the way of shedding her segregationist upbringing, let’s just say Smith pissed off a lot of racists—a tradition we have long been happy to continue.

‘It’s Not Like They’re Dog Kennels’

Seriously, Rep. Steve Palazzo? The dehumanization in your words about immigrants last week, reported by Ashton Pittman, were nothing short of horrifying. Why not stop vying to be the worst of Mississippi?

(P.S. Palazzo is against Trump's impeachment, too. Alert the media.)

First, Do No Harm: How Not to Cover Crime and Public Schools

I attended a gathering of media leaders Thursday morning in the Jackson Public Schools board room hosted by its newish high-energy superintendent, Dr. Errick Greene. He summarized the district’s new strategic plan, which I’d seen because I had attended the unveiling at Kirksey Middle School and sat in on a brainstorm session there. (Look at the strategic plan here.)

The JFP's 'Preventing Violence' Series

A full archive of the JFP's "Preventing Violence" series, supported by grants from the Solutions Journalism Network. Photo of Zeakyy Harrington by Imani Khayyam.

Dr. Greene gave examples of positive media coverage, including my recent Let’s Talk Jackson podcast with him—even though he added with a smile that I “pressed him” in it. (Hey, that’s what I do.) But he seemed to like the chance to get beyond easy sound bites and sensationalism, and he didn’t pull punches about problems and needs in the district.

At the gathering, I asked Dr. Greene how Jackson media’s typical style of crime coverage affects the schools. (Most of you know how I feel about it already.)

What was sad to me is that Dr. Greene had to tell newsroom leaders that they don’t have to mention a JPS school just because a crime happens in its general vicinity. This cements in people’s minds that our schools are bad and dangerous, which in turn hurts the school, the district, the kids and families, and even the city’s economy when people decide to move to the suburbs and take their piece of the tax base with them.

What makes me sad, and a bit angry, is how often I’ve heard that same request over the last 17 years of running this newspaper at forum after forum—to please stop mentioning a school that had nothing to do with a crime. Will it be any different this time, especially on networks that love to lead newscasts with the latest mayhem report? Who knows?

Meantime, dip into our Preventing Violence archive to see how the Jackson Free Press covers crime differently and from a causes-solutions frame.

Hinds Documents Still Intact

Back in Jackson proper, the Jackson Free Press got good news this week when Hinds County Board of Supervisors President Peggy Calhoun assured me that the board would not destroy a list of documents we raised concerns about after a recent vote. She also assured me that all of the records are copies of documents available in the Hinds County Chancery Court’s office, the first time we had heard that necessary bit of information.

I was happy to hear that and also appreciate that President Calhoun understood that we want to go through the documents and ensure that they are indeed on file, especially considering that they are not being digitized.

I’ve talked about this in the last couple of Dossiers. Reporter Seyma Bayram is trying to make an appointment for us to view the documents on the list now. We’ll keep you posted.

Meantime, visit our very deep JFP Documents Morgue at jfp.ms/documents and poke around. Your hands won't even get dusty.

Dossier Tip of the Week: Seyma and I both have run into public officials in the last couple of weeks who do not understand that they are on the record during a phone call with a journalist about a story she's working unless they say it's off the record in advance. We can't spend an hour on the phone with you, and then you try to say it was all off the record and, thus, useless to us. Public officials need to understand this as a vital part of public transparency and accountability.

Email editor-in-chief Donna Ladd at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @donnerkay.

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