What the editor of Nebraska’s biggest newsroom was going to write… before being laid off

This is a modified version of a column I’d planned for publication in The Omaha World-Herald on Thursday, Feb. 17 – the day after I was laid off as executive editor. It stands up for local journalists, and I’m sharing it with Flatwater Free Press for that reason and because of broader points about journalism today.  – Randy Essex, former executive editor at the Omaha World-Herald

Last week (Ed. the week of Feb. 9), our publisher asked me if I knew what this email to her meant:

“Subject: Where is the News?

“After all that is happening today — where is the news, OWH??” 

That was the full text of the email, but experiences from the past 25 years in daily news told me to visit Foxnews.com to check its top stories. Since Rush Limbaugh started telling his audience in the ‘90s to “call your local paper,” calls and emails like this one typically refer to some story or narrative favored by the political right. 

Liberals, in turn, complain about “both-sides reporting,” which they believe gives undue weight to narratives they consider false.

At times, either side may have a point, but most often, their complaint is in service to their preferred partisan narrative.  

Checking Fox, there it was: “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.” 

As I was reading the story and emailing our wire editor to keep an eye out for an Associated Press report on the filing by John Durham, I got two calls asking why this wasn’t in the paper. Durham is a special counsel appointed by William Barr, charged with investigating the origins of the Donald Trump-Russia allegations. 

Durham has so far charged three people, two of them with lying to the FBI. 

One of the three is Michael Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer who represented the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 election. That September, he met with the FBI to relay concerns from cybersecurity researchers about “pings” between servers of the Trump organization and a Russia-based bank — a claim that the FBI later debunked.

Durham alleges that Sussmann lied when he told agents he was not presenting the information on anyone’s behalf.

The recent Durham motion, which was aimed at disqualifying Sussmann’s current attorneys and contained no new charges, included these assertions: 

A government contractor “enlisted the assistance of researchers at a U.S.-based university who were receiving and analyzing large amounts of internet data in connection with a pending federal government cybersecurity research contract.” 

The contractor, Rodney Joffe, “tasked these researchers to mine internet data to establish ‘an inference’ and ‘narrative’ tying then-candidate Trump to Russia. In doing so, (Joffe) indicated that he was seeking to please certain ‘VIPs,’ referring to individuals at (Sussmann’s law firm) and the Clinton campaign.
“The Government’s evidence at trial will also establish that among the internet data (Joffe) and his associates exploited was domain name system (DNS) internet traffic pertaining to (i) a particular healthcare provider, (ii) Trump Tower, (iii) Donald Trump’s Central Park West apartment building and (iv) the Executive Office of the President of the United States.”
This led to Fox’s headline that the “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers …” 

That’s incorrect. As Durham’s motion notes above, the White House data was from a federal contract,” not a Clinton campaign initiative. 

I strongly urge you to read Durham’s motion

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology say the DNS traffic captured from the White House was from the Obama administration, under Joffe’s contract to study potential cyber vulnerabilities.

The latest date in Durham’s motion, which acknowledges that DNS data was gathered legally from the Obama White House starting in 2014, is when Sussman met with the CIA on Feb. 9, 2017. It strains logic to believe that Sussman, in the Trump administration’s first three weeks, gathered fresh data, assembled a report and arranged an appointment with the CIA in such a short period of time. If he was, as Durham asserts, working for the Clinton campaign, well, that was defunct. Much more likely is that the data Durham references was entirely from before Trump was president. 

The Fox story quotes Trump as saying “This is a scandal far greater in scope and magnitude than Watergate” and “In a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death.” The word “infiltrate,” which does not appear in the motion, came from Kash Patel, Rep. Devin Nunes’ chief investigator when the House Intelligence Committee examined the Trump-Russia allegations. 

The Fox story at the same time shows no effort to contact Joffe, the Georgia researchers or Sussmann’s attorneys – which would be standard fare for fair and balanced reporting.  

And yet Fox viewers accused The World-Herald of bad journalism. 

The World-Herald does not cover the Justice Department. It gets national and international news via the Associated Press, a cooperative founded in 1846 that’s financed by member organizations, which would include, for example, Fox News. 

It has been under attack by Fox and other conservative outlets for more than a decade, which might be good business if you are seeking to persuade people that your partisan version of events is the one true account.  

The AP isn’t perfect. No news organization is perfect, no human or human institution is perfect. That would include Fox News.

Tuesday morning, I got an email similar to Monday’s cryptic note:

“Subject: Where is the reporting? 

“I can’t find a word about Durham’s new findings?”

Later that day, The World-Herald posted the first AP story available

Local reporting, and its value proposition, is local and regional news. So, to answer “where is the reporting,” on Tuesday (Feb 15), here was some of the local newspaper’s work:

  • As nuclear power gains steam, utilities prepare
  • COVID cases drop, hospitals still stressed
  • Bill’s goal: An elected library board
  • Fortenberry trial won’t transfer to Nebraska
  • Charges possible for mom who gave birth outside in cold
  • Cass County deputy fatally shoots Alvo man
  • A guest opinion from former U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter on Ukraine.

Plus two dozen other locally produced news, sports and opinion items. 

And pictures of the zoo’s new baby elephants. I hear that Fox likes elephants.

14 Comments

I’m glad that I got to read Randy Essex’s thoughts one more time. I certainly hope it’s not the last.

Nice job Randy. All the best to you in the future. I hope we’ll continue to hear and read your thoughts.

Amen! I follow and post Letters from an American every day. Heather Cox Richardson from Boston University, now on sabbatical to research a new book, writes them. She posts on FB but I share the email so I don’t get crazy comments. She also lists her resources. I’ve appreciated articles you’ve posted.

Very sad he is gone. I also am sad that the robust World Herald newspaper of past years is no more. Very glad for the Flatwater Free Press. Thanks all<

Lee Enterprises does not need Alden Hedge Fund to destroy this newspaper. Lee is quite (in)adept at that task.

Let’s not overlook the overarching meaning of the reader’s email. The Publisher either can’t or won’t interpret the actual news published but assumes the email author is correct.

I never thought I would feel sadness for the OWH, but I do now. Warren Buffett improved the paper to the point where I was a regular reader, then sold it to the bottom-feeder Lee Enterprises. I was working for KMTV when, In 1986, Lee bought it, trashed it, then sold it. Lee has followed their pattern with the OWH.

The info that the current publisher is substituting Fox “News” for journalistic standards is sickening, not surprising.

Randy, we need more quality journalists such as Iowa Boy and DMR legend Chuck Offenburger (fellow Vanderbilt grad) spreading the objective news we need in this troubled world with groups such as Lee Enterprises and Alden Capital taking over newspapers in droves – Thanks for this in-depth editorial and good luck in the job search…Hang in there,

As a political centrist I get vitriol from all sides. Essex tried to create, I think, a centrist paper on a limited budget, and took heat from both the nutty left and right. Sadly, seems no market for balanced news.

Randy Essex will be missed at the World-Herald. He and Geitner Simmons were never reluctant to publish my musings on the op-ed page. As a World-Herald alum in Omaha, Council Bluffs (yes, there was a bureau there!) and in Washington DC, I am hoping the paper does not go the way of so many others in this country. We need local news, someone to watch over our Congressional delegation in DC (gone now) and a strong editorial voice. Frank Partsch offered me a job back in the 80s writing World-Herald editorials but I opted to stay in law school. We all make choices. Godspeed, Randy!

The Durham bubble popped within a few days and proved to be empty. Not even the Fox Propaganda Network could keep it alive. Good follow-up, Randy, and good luck in your future endeavors.

I am sorry Randy lost his job but text above shows why the Herald continues to decline. Hillary and Trump knew each other for a long time and Hillary got caught up in scandal after scandal. You should read up on what Dick Morris, who advised the Clintons, what he thinks of Hillary. The Durham Report has become the latest battlefront of between Hillary and Trump, yet the Democrat organizations defend Hillary and attack Trump. Had the news media had any sense of neutrality, they would cover the Durham Report and let people have their say. Thanks to Randy for providing the link to the report, but may I ask why we are still debating the 2016 election?