The day after Jim Pillen was elected governor, a story idea landed in my inbox.
Pillen, the email pointed out, runs one of the largest pork operations in the country. Pillen may very well be the biggest Big Agriculture governor in American history.
“Some governors tout their upbringings on small farms, and a few can claim lifelong careers in the agriculture industry… But Pillen stands out,” Sky Chadde, a reporter at Investigate Midwest, wrote back in November.
I’m a pretty plugged-in guy. I knew our new governor grew a successful hog business. But I hadn’t begun to grasp its scope and scale. As our new story reports, Pillen’s businesses are involved in every step of pork production, from breeding to bacon. Just one of his companies claims to be responsible for “2 out of 5” strips of bacon in the U.S. and Canada.
In other words, Pillen was already one of the biggest names in agriculture, the state’s biggest industry. As governor, he is now the chief executive of agencies tasked with regulating and supporting his own business interests.
That fact – that tension – inspired a series that we kick off today.
I’m proud of what Chadde and Flatwater Free Press investigative reporter Yanqi Xu have delivered. The series, a collaboration between the Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest, will detail how Pillen built his empire, and examine some issues that arise in his newest role. It is detailed, dutiful journalism about Nebraska’s highest elected official.
It’s a series of stories about three Ps: power, policy and pigs. In fact, we’re calling the series “Pigs and Power.”
It is not a story about a fourth P: politics.
We aren’t doing this story because of the “R” that comes after Pillen’s name on a ballot.
Journalism, the kind we admire and aim to produce, isn’t about that.
When the highest elected official in the state is also making money from the state’s biggest economic engine – when the decisions he makes as governor can help or hurt his giant company’s bottom line – it merits journalistic attention.
We would cover it whether he was Republican or Democrat.
You don’t have to take my word for it.
Read the story we ran in January, one that examined the proposed recipients of $335 million in state money distributed through a bill and process sponsored by state senator Justin Wayne.
The biggest recipient of the money: A company first incorporated by Justin Wayne, a Democrat.
We did that story. Of course we did that story.
They’re not the same. Not by a longshot. But I knew, in reading that email from Chadde, that we’d do this story, too.
It gives me no pleasure to share that the journalistic smell test can be annoyingly unscientific.
I spent years as a data reporter and a builder of data-driven news products. I believe in evidence-based decision-making. I like to work in absolutes.
Deciding what makes a story isn’t a litmus test or if/then statement.
It’s a matrix of many variables, a bevy of qualitatives and immeasurables.
Who has power? What’s the harm? The impact? How many people are affected? What’s the proof? Is this fair?
Those questions, and more, play out every day in deciding where to deploy our reporting firepower.
The answers are rarely clear cut. But when it comes to our governor, it gets a lot easier.
Of course we should spend the time. Of course we publicly poke and prod his business and background.
He’s the governor.
That’s good journalism. And that’s what we do.