The St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists denounces the actions of a political operative in Illinois who apparently posed as a student journalist in order to lob attacks at a Congressional candidate.
On July 17, Nick Klitzing posed as “Jim Sherman,” self-identified as a student reporter for The Alestle at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, in order to gain access to a press conference call, according to multiple news reports. There is no Jim Sherman working at The Alestle now or in the past 11 years, nor is any such person enrolled at SIUE, according to university officials.
The conference call that Klitzing gate-crashed was with Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, the Democratic candidate running opposite U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville). According to WCIA, Klitzing freely admitted he lied about his identity and representation to get on the call, where he apparently lobbed a series of accusations against Londrigan regarding political action committee funding.
Klitzing is not a new or low-level political operative. He is the former executive director of the Illinois Republican Party and former deputy campaign manager for former Gov. Bruce Rauner. As of this writing, the Davis campaign has not publicly stated whether Klitzing was acting with the congressman’s knowledge, according to multiple news reports.
This is not an issue for partisan politics. It is not about Democrats vs. Republicans. When political operatives of any party misrepresent themselves as journalists, they make our complex job of maintaining public trust in news coverage much more difficult. Journalists already have enough problems gaining access to public officials, and student journalists have a much harder time gaining access than those working for traditional news organizations.
This is an issue that has actually been adjudicated. The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press has sued the FBI over agents pretending to be journalists in their investigations, and in court, the U.S. Department of Justice has confirmed that such actions have a chilling effect that makes it more difficult for real journalists to gain the trust of their sources.
These kinds of tactics will inevitably lead to fewer journalists being granted access to candidates and officials with more roadblocks placed in their way, and the value and depth of election news coverage will undoubtedly suffer. We are all heading into what will undoubtedly become a political circus of an election season, and we call upon all the campaigns to instruct their operatives not to conduct themselves in this manner.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics advises us to avoid surreptitious or deceptive practices in newsgathering, and indeed, Klitzing’s behavior would probably have gotten him fired from most reputable news organizations. We should expect no less of a standard from our elected officials.
Disclosure: St. Louis SPJ chapter president Elizabeth Donald and vice president Tammy Merrett both are affiliated with The Alestle at SIUE, in addition to their volunteer work with SPJ. This statement has been approved by a majority of the St. Louis SPJ board. Quotes may be attributed to Elizabeth Donald, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.