Our Call: The press is not the enemy



It’s old news now that up until just a few weeks ago, the Social Security numbers of thousands of Missouri teachers were accessible to anyone who knew how to view a website’s source code. 

A reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discovered that an online application that allowed the public to search state educators’ credentials could also be used to view Social Security numbers. The numbers were not shown as part of the default display but were in the website’s source code, which can easily be accessed from browsers like Safari, FireFox and Chrome. 

After both discovering the flaw, the Post-Dispatch reporter took it upon himself to alert the state about the issue so it could be corrected before publishing the story. 

Rather than taking any responsibility for the error discovered by the reporter, Gov. Mike Parson took it upon himself to blame the reporter for finding the problem in the first place, threatening both the reporter and the newspaper with criminal charges. 

Instead of using this column to lament on the incompetence of state leadership, this seems like a good time to remind the public that the press is not the enemy, even when Parson claims otherwise. 

If the press was as criminal as Parson has implied, the Post-Dispatch reporter wouldn’t have taken the time to not only alert the state of the website’s flaw, but also to give them time to fix the issue before the article’s publication. 

That’s not to say that Parson should be bending over backward to thank the Post-Dispatch – no one likes being caught with their pants down. But his attack  should be called out for what it is: an attempt to avoid accountability by threatening to use the powers of the state against the press for accessing publicly available information. The threat of legal action chills the efforts of every journalist in Missouri, who may be more reluctant in the future to report issues for fear of retaliation. 

What would have happened if the Post-Dispatch never discovered the flaw? That information could have landed in the hands of someone far more sinister. 

This is a reminder that the work of all journalists – from large national outlets, metro dailies or community weeklies – is a cornerstone of our democracy, and criticism between the Fourth Estate and the state is part of a healthy society. It seems like Gov. Parson could stand to be reminded of that.