Why did Last Best News pass on racism claims?

Robert Saunders in a campaign photo.

Robert Saunders in a campaign photo.

Few charges are more damning in modern America than an accusation of racism. That’s why Last Best News sat on a story making exactly that charge against Robert Saunders, a Republican candidate for House District 48.

The openly partisan Montana Cowgirl blog broke the story on Thursday. The Billings Gazette followed up with a front-page story on Saturday. We’re still not buying it.

The story began with an email from a former classmate of Saunders at Patrick Henry College. The email was sent to Jessica Karjala, Saunders’ Democratic opponent, who passed it along to attorney Gene Jarussi. Since Last Best News had broken the story about Saunders’ threat to sue Karjala for defamation, Jarussi passed it to us.

Stewart Lundy, who sent the email, claimed that while Saunders was in college, he posted on Facebook a suggestion that Barack Obama and his family should go back to picking cotton. Lundy also said that Saunders had made a racist remark to an African-American student.

I spent a couple of afternoons trying to track this story down. I watched a video Jarussi made of the black student, Erin Eskew, who happened to live in San Antonio, where Jarussi was visiting at the time. I talked to both Lundy and Eskew on the phone.

Eskew seemed quite fair minded and sincere; you can judge for yourself. Maybe I was biased in her favor because she had worked as a reporter in two Texas towns where I used to live. She knew how to answer a reporter’s questions.

So her claim that Saunders had once told her he could have owned her a hundred or so years ago sounded credible. She said she had even considered the possibility that Saunders didn’t mean the remark as racist but simply as a statement of shameful historical reality.

But she heard his comment as a threat that she should know her place, and she was offended enough that she walked away. She said that other students who heard the remark interpreted it the same way she did.

Strong stuff. But she couldn’t quite remember the context in which the comment was made. Another student, whose name she did not supply, was supposed to call me but never did. She also couldn’t remember any other racist comments from Saunders; instead, she said, he was part of a small group of students she avoided because they made her uncomfortable.

But even they had not made any overtly racist remarks she could recall. Rather, they raised questions about, for example, the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War. Eskew was at times the only black student at Patrick Henry, a conservative Christian college, so it’s understandable that these discussions might make her ill at ease.

But these also are legitimate issues for debate, especially among college students who may be approaching them seriously for the first time in their lives. If you can’t float the occasional lame-brained idea when you are in college, then there is no safe haven.

Talking to Lundy made me even less confident about this story. He, too, sounded sincere, but he was nearing graduation when Saunders entered college, so Lundy didn’t know Saunders well. Lundy said the racist Facebook post had been removed after other students complained, but he thought a screenshot had been preserved. However, he was never able to find the screenshot, and another student who he thought might have saved it never responded to my phone or email messages.

Lundy also said that Saunders had the college nickname of “Little Hitler.” However, Eskew could not recall having heard that name.

I talked all of this over with Ed Kemmick, and we both agreed: no screenshot, no story. If either Montana Cowgirl or the Gazette found better sources than I did, it wasn’t evident in their stories

Our decision still seems sound in traditional journalism terms, but these are not times of traditional journalism. I floated this story as a hypothetical, omitting all names, to my journalism students, and they all agreed that we should run the story.

After all, we live in an age when traditional media run stories every day based on emails that were clearly stolen and possibly tampered with, probably by a foreign country whose goal is to damage the United States. Somehow, mainstream journalists manage to both type and hold their noses at the same time.

Is Saunders a racist? I don’t know. And I’m not going to write a story that says he is unless I am damn sure it is right.

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