By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Phil Bryant

Peter Bhatia tells us about the Houston Landing — including the turmoil at the top

Peter Bhatia

On the new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Peter Bhatia. Bhatia is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor who is now chief executive officer of the Houston Landing, a nonprofit, non-partisan, no-paywall local news site that launched in spring of 2023. He has also been editor and vice president at the Detroit Free Press, from 2017-2023, and served as a regional editor for Gannett, supervising newsrooms in Michigan and Ohio.

His résumé includes helping lead newsrooms that won 10 Pulitzer Prizes. He is the first journalist of South Asian heritage to lead a major daily newspaper in the U.S. He has also been involved in some recent controversies, and, as you’ll hear, he doesn’t shy away from talking about them.

In Quick Takes, I talk about an important press-freedom case in Mississippi. The former governor, Phil Bryant, is suing Mississippi Today over its Pulitzer Prize-winning series on a state welfare scandal that got national attention and even managed to touch former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Bryant says he needs access to Today’s internal documents in order to prove his libel case, and a state judge has agreed. Mississippi Today has decided to take the case to the state Supreme Court. It’s a risk, because it will set a precedent in the Magnolia State — for better or worse.

Ellen highlights an interview with Alicia Bell, the director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. Bell talked to Editor & Publisher about her upcoming report on what it will take to build a thriving local news ecosystem for BIPOC communities across the country. Her estimate: it will take somewhere between $380 million to $7.1 billion annually to truly fund BIPOC journalism across the U.S. That’s a big number, but Borealis is a pioneer in this space, and it’s important research as national efforts like Press Forward roll out.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Mississippi Today fights a judge’s order to turn over internal documents

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. Photo (cc) 2016 by Tammy Anthony Baker.

The nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today has filed an appeal with that state’s Supreme Court rather than turn over internal documents sought by former Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s suing Today over its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into a state welfare scandal.

It’s a high-stakes gamble: Mississippi recognizes only a very limited reporter’s privilege protecting journalists and news organizations from being ordered to identify anonymous sources and from producing documents. A lower court went along with Bryant, who argues that he is seeking evidence he needs in his attempt to prove that he was libeled by Today and its publisher, Mary Margaret White, a past guest on our “What Works” podcast. Today’s editor-in-chief, Adam Ganucheau, writes:

The Supreme Court could guarantee these critical rights for the first time in our state’s history, or it could establish a dangerous precedent for Mississippi journalists and the public at large by tossing aside an essential First Amendment protection.

As readers of Media Nation know, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not provide for a reporter’s privilege. Nevertheless, 49 states offer some form of privilege either through a law or a ruling by state courts. The sole exceptions are Wyoming and the federal government itself. (The latest efforts to create a federal shield law are currently stalled in the Senate.)

The reporter’s privilege in Mississippi, though, is extremely limited — so much so that Ganucheau doesn’t regard his state as having any privilege at all. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press lumps Mississippi in with a group of states that have the lowest level of protection for journalism, including Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia and, sadly for us New Englanders, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

In RCFP’s guide to the reporter’s privilege, Mississippi lawyer Hale Gregory writes that “there are no reported decisions from Mississippi’s appellate courts regarding the reporters’ privilege, qualified or otherwise,” but that several court orders by the state’s trial courts have recognized “a qualified privilege.”

Mississippi Today has emerged as a vital source of accountability journalism in our poorest state. Currently it’s partnering with The New York Times on an investigation into a county sheriff’s department that has already led to prison sentences for six deputies who tortured two Black men in their custody, and that could lead to a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

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