I made it a policy at the Idaho Freedom Foundation never to speak to the legacy press, and every now and then, I get a reminder of why. The most recent reminder came from my interaction with Clark Corbin at the Idaho Capital Sun. Clark asked if I’d sit for an interview regarding the impending retirement of Idaho Press writer Betsy Russell. I say “writer” because calling her a journalist or a reporter would simply not be accurate.
Clark emailed to ask, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Betsy Russell? What was your reaction to hearing she is retiring? Based on your long history in politics and journalism, how would you place Betsy's work in context in Idaho? Are there are any memorable stories or encounters or runs-ins with Betsy over the years that you would like to share or discuss?”
I waited a few days to respond. I ultimately decided that it would be in the interest of history to capture some of the reasons Russell can’t be trusted as a reporter. Here was my response:
Betsy is not a reporter. She's a propagandist, much like most of the rest of the Idaho media. Having spent nearly 20 years in the journalism profession and 17 years connected to it (as an agency spokesman, a spokesman for conservative candidates and politicians, and at the head of the IFF for nearly 15 years), I can safely say that Betsy abandoned long-established standards for ethics in journalism about 20 years ago. She should have left the profession then.
Most notably, Betsy started Idahoans for Openness in Government in 2003 and populated the board with elected officials, state bureaucrats, and leftist activists. Yet she continued to write about the people on her board without disclosing her conflict of interest. Her too-cozy relationship resulted in people who should have received the full weight of journalistic scrutiny being given a pass.
In 2013, the Idaho Freedom Foundation won the most dramatic and consequential victory in the history of state government transparency when the IFF got the Legislature to stop deleting the video and audio recordings of House and Senate floor and committee proceedings. The result of our work was the creation of the Legislature's permanent digital media archive, allowing Idahoans to view recordings of official proceedings that now go back 10 years. Betsy, despite her self-described interest in government transparency, had no interest in helping with this effort (and in fact affirmatively refused to help), and yet she claimed the success as her own at an open government event that summer. This isn't just unethical; it's slimy.
In her role as the head of the Capitol Correspondents Association she has consistently fought to prevent citizen journalists (usually conservatives) from having the same Statehouse access as the legacy media.
More recently, Betsy has taken it upon herself to testify in front of the very same legislative committees she covers, disregarding obvious ethical concerns that have been the hallmark of American journalistic practice for 100 years.
Her stories are so one-sided, bereft of concern for fairly representing the facts, and often get details so wrong that I wonder if she even has a grasp of the issues being presented. It has been such a problem that I have long given up talking to her. I have for years advised many candidates and elected officials to either stop talking to her or make certain to respond only by email.
As a person, I wish her well in her retirement. Everyone deserves to find happiness in life, and hopefully she will have it in abundance. But I will not miss her participation in the state's policy arena for the reasons I've stated.
True to form, Corbin wrote a glowing article about Russell and her contributions to the state’s political scene over the years and then focused attention on a column Russell wrote earlier this year bashing me.
Wrote Corbin, “Hoffman believes the column was one example of Russell stepping outside of journalistic ethics.”
You will note I said no such thing in my critique. There are weighter issues with Russell’s news coverage than anything she’s ever said about me. Ethical lapses, one-sided reporting, and restricting news access at the Statehouse matter far more, which is why I focused my response on those issues. None of that is captured by Corbin’s article.
Corbin even mentions Idahoans for Open Government specifically as one of Russell’s crowning achievements without noting the conflict part that I brought out. Curiouser is the fact that last week, Russell, for the first time that I’m aware, disclosed her conflict of interest in writing about defeated Attorney General Lawrence Wasden when Wasden has been working with Russell’s group for years. A journalist would ordinarily be fired for having so cozy a relationship with a sitting elected official that she covers. One wonders if Corbin shared my criticism with Russell even though he didn’t feel it worthy of mentioning it to his readers.
Corbin was correct to say that Russell and I served on the Idaho Press Club board together nearly 30 years ago. But he’s wrong in his reporting that Russell and I worked together at the Idaho Statesman. We didn’t. We were there at different times.
So, there’s another lesson learned. We’ve had the policy right all along. There’s no point in responding to questions from reporters and news outlets we know to be openly biased. Corbin and the Idaho Capital Sun are definitely that.
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