The National Press Club has awarded one of its highest honors to Post-Dispatch journalist Josh Renaud for uncovering a major privacy breach in Missouri’s computer system — and then enduring a bizarre, sustained attack from Gov. Mike Parson for it. The story behind Renaud’s well-deserved national honor highlights both the value of good public-service journalism and the poison of demagogic politics.
To recap: Last October, in the course of his news coverage, Renaud made a startling discovery in the state’s online teacher-certification data. Teachers’ Social Security numbers were embedded in the source code of the database, making them accessible to website visitors. A state online database that revealed personal information of more than 500,000 teachers was, undeniably, a government failure that needed to be reported to the public.
However, reporting it immediately, while the information was still vulnerable, would have invited outsiders to access and exploit the site’s vulnerabilities. So, Renaud and his editors did the responsible thing and quietly alerted Parson’s administration to the problem, then agreed to hold off reporting on it while state programmers fixed it.
The state’s education commissioner initially proposed a public statement to thank “a member of the news media” — Renaud — “who brought this to the state’s attention.” Which would have been a reasonable response. But Parson had something else in mind: portraying the newspaper as the enemy.
In an astonishingly cynical and dishonest attack on a reporter who had helped his administration close a major security breach, Parson went on the warpath. Without naming Renaud but clearly referring to him, Parson publicly and repeatedly accused him and the Post-Dispatch of “hacking,” falsely alleging it was a criminal act, and demanding a criminal investigation.
The probes confirmed the obvious: Renaud and the newspaper did nothing wrong. Parson’s motives remain a mystery. Was it embarrassment at having this security breach exposed? Was it cheap press-bashing so his political allies could fundraise off it? (They did.) Or was he just that ignorant about his own state’s computer system and the very meaning of the word “hacking”?
In any case, Parson has never offered an apology or even acknowledged he was wrong. But he was, obviously. He needs to apologize and officially clear the record.
In announcing last week that Renaud had won its 2022 Domestic John Aubuchon Award, a National Press Club statement lauded him as a public-service journalist who is helping pioneer “how to use technology to highlight and expose government failings.” It also called Parson’s actions “a particularly egregious example” of the “deeply regrettable national trend” by some public officials of attacking the free press.
Renaud’s handling of the story was the epitome of aggressive but responsible journalism. Parson’s self-serving and malicious reaction remains a shameful example of the exact opposite of responsible governance.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
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