Ex nihilo

Reporters live for ex nihilo days.   It is in one way or another what keeps us getting out of bed at all hours of the dark part of the day or up until sunrise, going to the newsroom regardless of the heat or the cold, the ice and the snow.   This Latin phrase meaning “out of nothing” is the thing that makes a reporter’s blood run. 

We never know when we start our day what we will find. We never know what we will confront during that day.  We never know what will challenge us.   Every day is a day of discovery for the reporter.  At the end of the day we have done something the physicists say can’t be done.  We have made something out of nothing.   Nuntium ex nihilo.   News out of nothing.  

We think that’s what that phrase means.  It sounds good.  But a Latin scholar who peruses this entry might have a more correct phrase.  Corrections are part of covering the news.

Last Friday (October 11) is an example.  We’re going to recount it because it might give non-reporters some insight into how a news story materializes and the kind of struggle that goes on for hours before a sixty-second (or less) report is heard on the air.

A little after 8 a.m., our farm network, Brownfield Ag News, got word from one of its sources that Missouri Agriculture Director Jon Hagler was resigning.  That’s big news to Missouri’s agriculture community and it’s important news for the general public, too.  

Brownfield and the Missourinet were the first two parts of what is now the sprawling Learfield Communications  empire.  Our newsrooms are within four feet of each other in the same room so there’s a lot of cross-pollination of news, so to speak, between us.   This became one of those days.

Former Missourinet reporter Julie Harker, now a nationally-recognized Brownfield reporter, passed along information to us that she had gotten from her source.  She called the Ag Department.  So did we.  Hagler was not available. In a meeting.   We called the department’s public information person, Christine Tew.  Unavailable. 

We called Governor Nixon’s communications office.  Channing Ansley, the head of the office, was in a meeting.  Or was unavailable.  Scott Holste, the person the office we work most often with, was off for the day. 

Now more information was trickling in to Julie, including a letter sent to commodity groups from Beth Ewers announcing Friday was her last day as Associate Director of the Missouri Meat and Poultry Inspection Program because of  “an environment of hostility, disrespect, intimidation and fear” that she laid at the doorstep of the “MDA Director,” namely Hagler.

More calls to Ag and the Governor’s press person.  Not available. 

More rumors start coming in.  Hagler is taking a job at Northwest Missouri State University.  Odd, we thought, because he’s married to a state representative from Farmington, Linda Black.  We had the Missourinet’s  Jessica Machetta call Maryville.   The university’s HR department said Hagler had not accepted any position there.  More about that later.

Next rumor: Commodity groups want former state Senator  Frank Barnitz, a rancher and  restaurant owner from Lake Spring, to take over for Hagler.  We tracked down Barnitz.  He hadn’t heard anything about Hagler, he told us.  He had been contacted by some folks, not the Governor’s people, and if he is offered a chance to speak for all of Missouri agriculture, he’d be honored to do it. 

Message to Harker: Hagler’s resignation is being announced “in the halls.”   It didn’t say which halls.  But we made more calls to Tew and to Ansley.  Not available.  Left messages again.   

About 11 a.m., we were told that Ansley had left the Capitol with Governor Nixon, who was going to the Lake of the Ozarks to cut the ribbon at noon opening the reconstructed dining hall at historic Camp Pin Oak—the original dining hall was destroyed by fire three years ago.  Called Ansley’s cell phone.  Not available.  Left a message.

Now a critical choice had to be made.  This reporter is a board member of the State Historical Society, which was having an important Executive Committee meeting in Columbia at noon.  The Missourinet staff was short-handed for the day so we couldn’t send someone to the Lake, unless—-

Clearly the Ag Department and the Governor had gone to their bunkers on the Hagler affair.  The lid was on and screwed down tight.  If we were going to get this story, we had to chase down the Governor.   So in short order the call was made to Columbia to let folks know the meeting would be one person short, the equipment bag was grabbed and a mad dash to the Lake began.  

Camp Pin Oak is part of the Lake of the Ozarks State Park.  It was built by the CCC people in the 30s.  It’s well off the beaten path, buried deep in the park on a point jutting out into the Lake.  But my car takes curves well.   And we got there with a few minutes to spare, joining a handful of other reporters waiting for Nixon to finish the public part of the event so we could grill him on a couple of issues, including Hagler.  

Ansley, seeing us lurking, told us Nixon would be available for questions after the public event was over, away from the podium.  Had reporters not tracked him to the Lake of the Ozarks on the day he cancelled an execution, and dealt with the departure of the Agriculture Director, he would not have explained to the public what he had done or what had been done.  The Nixon administration has had problems with accountability at times like this.

This wasn’t sudden, he claimed.  Hagler had been wanting to “explore other options” for some time and it was felt this was a good time to let him do that.   The Ewers letter?  Nixon had heard about it but wasn’t familiar with it.  He stumbled around on answering that question enough to make us wonder if he was being  totally candid.  And the phrase  “explore other options” is frequently used as code for a firing.   But we weren’t going to get anything more definitive from him although the behavior of information people in his office and at the Agriculture Department, which is part of the Nixon administration, raised suspicions.  Evasiveness by public officials has a tendency to provoke suspicion by reporters.  And evasion had been one of the words of the day.  

Capitol reporters see and hear this kind of stuff a lot if they stick around very long.  So we still didn’t  know if Hagler jumped or if he was pushed.  Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture did not issue a news release saying Hagler had resigned.  And the Nixon Communications Ministry did not issue one saying a member of Nixon’s cabinet since Nixon became Governor in 2009 was resigning.  But it did issue a press release announcing an interim Director of the Department of Agriculture  had been named.  An odd way, we thought, to handle the departure of an important figure in the administration since the days before there was a Nixon administration; he was part of the Nixon transition team in 2008. But messages issued from bunkers  are highly-controlled. 

It was a bad week for Hagler.  The Associated Press reported that his marriage to Rep. Linda Black had ended the previous Monday with a final divorce decree. 

We left the office at 5 p.m. after one last attempt to get Christine Tew at Ag to respond to a call.  She never did.  As of the end of the day  Monday (the 14th) she still had not returned a call.  

We did, however, get a call from someone else.  And this is a chance to explain another part of this reporting business that sometimes isn’t well understood by the public.  Sources.  Reporters often have to deal with people who give us information but don’t want to be identified for various reasons, including their  job security, their personal relationships with key figures in the story—sometimes as a matter of common courtesy or respect for a person involved in the story. We’re pretty careful in how we use unnamed sources.  We have to know them well enough to trust what they’re telling us and understand why they want to speak “on background.” Sometimes when our trust factor is not all that high, we do some checking with other contacts we have to evaluate the substance of the information we’ve gotten.  Quite often, we throw it away. 

 We’d be willing to bet that everyone who reads this entry has been told something with the admonition, “You can’t say this came from me, but…” It doesn’t mean you can’t  pass along the information.  But the source of the information doesn’t want it known that they’re the source of the information, or the gossip. 

Anyway, we got a call from another source who’d been on the inside of the situation who confirmed that Hagler had, indeed, been working on an exit from the department for some time.  He’s been in politics and academics for a long, long time, and had decided it was time to move back to a university climate.   He had been talking  to a university and the school president recently let him know the school is interested in putting him in an administrative position.  But the hiring process is a public one and that meant Hagler’s name would become known while he was still the department  director.  We’ve been told Governor Nixon had been informed about the matter and was okay with it.  But a decision was made to make a move so Hagler could pursue the job or be pursued by the job without the situation becoming awkward. 

So, based our our inside source’s comments,  the school involved was telling the truth when we called last Friday.  And Nixon was truthful in our interview at the Lake.   And the Ewers letter did not affect what happened Friday.   But on Friday we reported what we knew or were allowed to know.

So we’ve dealt with several sources with this story trying  to put the narrative together.  It’s too bad some key sources we could quote and should have quoted on Friday went to the bunker and, if our latest source is correct, left Hagler flapping in the wind. 

Regardless,  at the end of the day Friday we had done the impossible.  Nuntium ex nihilo.  We had created something out of nothing, something called news.  You read that product in your newspapers the next day.  You heard it on the Missourinet that afternoon.  

And that’s how one story happened and why making something out of nothing each day regardless of the struggle is what keeps a reporter’s blood flowing.

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