Pulitzer-Prize Winner Tony Messenger blurred the lines between the editorial page and the newsroom in 2015 and lived. Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich wasn’t so lucky.
On page 13A of the Feb. 27, 2015 edition, Tony Messenger, then the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, began his tribute to the late Tom Schweich by referring to him as his BFF, an acronym that stands for “best friends forever.” In the next sentence and several that followed, Messenger made clear that he was not really Schweich’s best friend, and that the label was used by his fellow editorial writers to sarcastically allude to his relationship with the state auditor and Republican gubernatorial candidate. As Messenger explained it, the BFF reference was an inside joke.
Messenger penned his tribute, which began with that disparagement, less than 24 hours after Schweich had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a hand gun. Messenger then went on to explain the reason why Schweich was jokingly referred to as his BFF. It was because Schweich exhibited a naivete unusual in a politician. He truly considered Messenger to be his confidante. Schweich spoke to Messenger openly about his political and personal troubles. Messenger listened. But it’s clear from Messenger’s account that he did not share Schweich’s illusion of friendship. Schweich was more a source than a friend to Messenger. He cultivated the relationship to gain inside information from Schweich beginning in 2010 when he was a reporter for another newspaper in Jefferson City, the Missouri state capital.
Immediately prior to his suicide, Schweich had confided in Messenger, telling him about the problems he was encountering related to his Republican gubernatorial bid. Rumors were allegedly being circulated against him by John Hancock, the then-chairman of the state Republican Party. The allegations revolved around Schweich’s religious background. According to Messenger’s account, Schweich believed Hancock was falsely telling Republicans that Schweich was Jewish in an effort to undercut his gubernatorial candidacy.
In his homage, Messenger wrote that after Schweich committed suicide Messenger felt compelled to do what he had never done before as a reporter: He revealed the substance of off-the-record conversations with a source. The problem with Messenger’s confession is that he was not a reporter any longer when this breech of ethics occurred. He was the editorial page editor. Editorial writers are not reporters. They adhere to a different set of rules than those followed in the newsroom. They must remain detached and above the fray, otherwise they risk destroying their credibility and independence by miring themselves in conflicts of interests and charges of bias and deceit. In short, an editorial writer should never have been talking off-the-record to a public official, especially one involved in a heated election race.
In this case, the conflict is that Messenger was milking a confidential source for inside political information when he was not a reporter. Moreover, he knew that Schweich was having serious emotional and mental problems, but he continued the relationship despite all of this, feigning friendship. He was in charge of setting the editorial position of the newspaper and shaping public opinion, while continuing to maintain an off-the-record source — as if he were still a reporter. He was not a reporter, however. Nonetheless, Messenger still referred to himself in the aftermath of the Schweich suicide as a “reporter.”
The other problem with Messenger’s confused role in this tragedy is that he apparently communicated some facet of confidential information he had received off-the-record from Schweich to the newsroom staff, from which he was supposed to be separated as an opinion writer. A reporter was subsequently sent to interview Schweich, but Schweich killed himself before the reporter arrived.
Messenger had broken the firewall between the editorial page and the newsroom.
Was Messenger sacked, suspended or even mildly reprimanded for these violations of journalistic standards? No, he was rewarded and given a column. Last year, he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and there was much celebrating in the newsroom to which he had returned. Schweich’s death wasn’t on anybody’s mind during the celebration. The circumstances of Schweich’s death would have been largely forgotten had not Tony Messenger himself duly chronicled his involvement to readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
At 9:41 a.m., Feb. 26, 2015, seven-minutes before police were called to Schweich’s house after he shot himself, Tony Messenger acknowledged receiving a call on his cell phone from a distraught Tom Schweich, but Messenger ignored the call. He didn’t pick it up. Schweich left him a voice mail message. Referring to that final message from his “BFF,” Messenger ended his tribute to Schweich the day after the state auditor’s suicide with this comment: “I think I’ll keep it.”