Steve Stenger

From the Post-Dispatch’s news reporting on the county executive’s inauguration on January 1, 2015: “Kneeling on a chair and crouched over a conference table, Steve Stenger’s posture resembled a jaguar preparing to pounce on its prey.” It’s one of the most appallingly hyperbolic over-praises of a public figure in a news report ever printed in the free press of a Democratic country.

Forgive Political EYE for taking one more bite out of the poison apple of the Steve Stenger federal indictment and guilty plea to corruption while in office as St. Louis County Executive, but there is just so much to say in its 44 pages.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch continues to take victory laps for Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith’s indictment and plea deal with Stenger, as if the newspaper and not the prosecutor brought down the ogre that the newspaper had done so much to empower in the first place.

Here is some characteristic self-congratulation from Christopher Ave, the paper’s political and national editor: “In its own way, the Stenger indictment is a stunning affirmation of @stltoday's reporting on his administration. Incredible shout-out to @jacobbarker included in its 44 pages. Hat tip to Jacob and all at the region's dominant news source!”

First of all, the language: “the region's dominant news source.” Who or what is the Post-Dispatch supposed to be dominating? The region itself? The rest of us toiling in the humble trade of gathering and reporting the news? The Post, even after decades of attrition, still has the region’s largest newsroom and should therefore be expected to deliver the fastest and most comprehensive news coverage. But “dominant”? If anyone at the Post thinks the rest of us are submissively biting a pillow for the paper, they would be sorely disappointed. Ave’s supervisor might more closely monitor his intake of caffeine, power bars, and recently visited web sites.

Goldsmith’s indictment of Stenger does indeed mention the Post and its reporter Jacob Barker, who did indeed do a great deal of accurate and damning public-interest reporting on Stenger. Barker, clearly, had good sources on where to dig and was digging diligently. The paper should be proud of his work and that of columnist Tony Messenger (more on Tony later).

But, as the EYE has said before, when your name appears in a transcript on a federal indictment, that means the target had an accomplice who was wired and cooperating with the feds. As much as the Post wants to take credit for steering the federal investigation, clearly the feds were ahead of them. Goldsmith, clearly, had even better sources on where to dig and was digging diligently – and striking gold – before the Post picked up the scent.

Consider that when a federal indictment includes someone’s full name in the context of helping commit a crime, that means the government is presenting disparaging information about that person and had better be prepared to back it up. Everyone fully named in the Stenger indictment should be expected to be cooperating with the feds, and most if not all of their names will be appearing in future plea deals. The EYE counts more than a dozen people who must have turned on Stenger, and clearly at least one of them was wired for sound for around a year if not more. If you wonder why Stenger folded so fast and pled guilty, that’s why. His attorney Scott Rosenblum would have looked at all those complete names of Stenger accomplices in the indictment and known that his client had better be thinking about how he is going to look in orange.

So the Post did not initiate the federal investigation into Stenger, but the paper did a great deal to initiate the Stenger administration. The paper’s current editorial board recently wrote a cloying defense of its endorsement of Stenger in the 2018 general election (which was meaningless, since the Republican candidate had no chance of winning), but it has been silent on its much more crucial endorsement of Stenger over incumbent Charlie Dooley in the 2014 Democratic primary. That’s when, after a year-long jeremiad alleging corruption against Dooley, the paper endorsed Stenger, ending its editorial with what is now a laugh line: “Right now the county needs competent management. Steve Stenger offers that.” Tony Messenger led the editorial board that made this laughably false claim without a scrap of evidence.

Today’s Post reporters try to draw a distinction between its allegedly noble newsroom and admittedly compromised editorial board, but the public record does not substantiate that claim either.

In the paper’s news reporting on the Stenger inauguration on January 1, 2015, Steve Giegerich – ostensibly reporting the news, just the facts, ma’am – included the following stylistic flourish, that his editors let stand: “Kneeling on a chair and crouched over a conference table, Steve Stenger’s posture resembled a jaguar preparing to pounce on its prey.”

Is that what Ave meant by “dominant” – like a jaguar? It’s one of the most appallingly hyperbolic over-praises of a public figure in a news report ever printed in the free press of a Democratic country. Little did we know the “prey” would be us.

Perhaps even worse than Giegerich slandering jaguars globally by comparison to a petty human fraud from Affton, Missouri, was the reporting on Stenger and Dooley for the Post by Paul Hampel – who then resigned from the paper and went to work for Stenger. Hampel, like Messenger and the editorial board, was suckered in by the rumors – stoked by Stenger, then-County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and then-Police Chief Tim Fitch – that there was an active federal investigation of Dooley about to draw blood any moment. One front-page Hampel report (slammed at the time in the EYE) had no tighter source than “swirling rumors.”

This is profoundly ironic in the light of Stenger’s dim view of talking to the press, as captured on federal wiretap. He tells one accomplice “don’t talk to the [expletive] press.” In fact, Stenger got to where he was precisely by talking to the press, especially the Post. Had someone on his campaign in 2013-2014 been wired for sound, we would be reading about Stenger’s endless calls to Messenger, Hampel and Giegerich trying to swirl some false rumors of corruption – and then laughing his lying behind off when he saw that they fell for it again.

Stenger tried the same routine with an editor at The American. (This was after Stenger was amazed to learn the indeed amazing fact that he had requested a meeting with The American’s editorial board before Dooley did; though this paper did its duty as a Black Press voice in defending the county’s first black chief executive from slander in the mainstream press, Dooley was never close to this newspaper or its leadership.) When Stenger was asked for documents or a named source to back up his swirling rumor, he said he would get back to us. We are still waiting. Federal penitentiaries have mail service, Steve, if you ever find that evidence against Charlie.

Post editors also have defended the paper in light of Hampel going to work for Stenger, a winning candidate whose campaign he covered – Ave, again – saying the paper is not responsible for what its staff members do when they leave the paper. The Post leadership should do a little deeper reflection on how politicized and weaponized its news staff and coverage have become. Koran Addo also left the Post to work for a winning candidate whose campaign he covered (Mayor Lyda Krewson). Doug Moore, yet another Post reporter, is now slinging message for yet another public official, interim County Executive Sam Page. The American proudly stakes its claim as a voice of advocacy journalism, speaking up for the black community in St. Louis. The Post may as well admit that its newsroom has become a politicized springboard to political jobs and decide: whose side is it on?

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