Intrigue over Haley daughter story

Photo of Nikki and Rena Haley from Gov. Haley's Facebook page.

A vanishing article about how Gov. Nikki Haley's 14-year-old daughter landed a job in the Statehouse gift shop has blossomed into an awkward episode for another South Carolina newspaper.

The State newspaper in Columbia ran the story today, a week after an earlier version of the piece briefly appeared on the web sites of two sister publications and in the print edition of one. That version was soon yanked without explanation, prompting much speculation as to whether The State had spiked the piece.

Bloggers and journalists spent the past week batting around conspiracy theories about what led to the article's removal. They questioned whether Haley had somehow strong-armed The State into caving in and abandoning the story.

Mark Lett, The State's executive editor, chalked up the incident to something of a production error. But he would not answer questions Wednesday about what conversations Haley's office had with The State before the piece being pulled.

“We continue to work the story,” Lett told The Post and Courier. “As a result, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on our plans and other issues in motion.”

The governor's office had refused to provide The State details about the hiring process, pay and work hours for the taxpayer-funded job Haley's daughter landed, citing security concerns, according to reporter Gina Smith's article.

The governor's office, however, provided answers to those questions to The Post and Courier Wednesday afternoon.

Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said Haley's daughter, Rena, usually works 20-25 hours per week and is paid $8 an hour, the same as all entry-level workers at the gift shop, which is run by the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

The hours of other gift shop workers were not trimmed to accommodate Rena's position, he said.

Agency spokesman Marion Edmonds confirmed those facts and said Rena Haley is among seven to 12 workers in the gift shop. She primarily cleans and stocks shelves. Edmonds acknowledged that the position was not advertised, but he said that's standard for seasonal workers, because the jobs need to be filled quickly.

“It is true, we did not advertise for the position,” he said. “But that is not the first time. That is sort of the standard.”

Haley's office also acknowledged Wednesday that the governor contacted The State about the story before its planned publication. But Haley didn't offer any kudos to the newspaper for holding the piece.

“The governor, as a parent, appealed to The State's sense of decency in hopes that it would follow tradition and not write about details of her minor child's life, and, unfortunately, The State showed its lack of decency,” Godfrey said.

Smith's article raised the question of whether nepotism was at play in Rena's hiring at a time when the state is seventh in the nation in unemployment and Haley is boasting of trimming government spending.

But what turned the story viral was that it vanished soon after appearing July 19 on the websites of The Rock Hill Herald and The Charlotte Observer, which, like The State, are owned by the McClatchy newspaper chain.

The Rock Hill paper also ran the piece in its print edition. The two newspapers offered no reason for quickly pulling the online versions.

Bloggers and journalists quickly found an original version of the story that still lingered on the Internet, a version known as a cached copy.

The weekly Free Times of Columbia added to the intrigue when, citing an unidentified source, it reported that The State had apparently agreed to kill the story at Haley's urging.

Haley clearly wasn't pleased by The State's piece. She and her staff had raised concerns about the story jeopardizing the teen's security, and Haley had admonished the newspaper on her Facebook page for pursuing the article. She wrote:

“Scrutiny of me comes with the territory of being governor. I expect it. But it's a sad day for journalism in South Carolina when The State newspaper goes after my 14 year old daughter. Public officials have a right to expect that their minor children are off limits from political opponents and even from biased media outlets like The State. Its disgusting. Shame on them.”

A number of media observers and pundits insisted that the story raised legitimate questions about what role, if any, the governor played in her daughter's obtaining the gift shop job.

Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, said the newspaper's inquiry was “absolutely appropriate” in the context of gauging the manner in which the governor conducts herself in office.

“When job creation is a core issue in the governor's office, creating one job for her 14-year-old daughter is something that at least warrants a question,” he said. “It's one of those things that just doesn't look right.”

Bierbauer, a former CNN senior White House correspondent, said he found The State's delay in republishing the story puzzling, particularly because no one has questioned its accuracy or called for any corrections in its content.

“Out is out, and once it is published there is no reeling it back,” he said. “And if the story is accurate, there is no reason to reel it back.”

Jim Romenesko, who writes a popular and influential media blog, also had questions as to what happened with the story, and wrote to The State's Lett looking for answers. Lett had this to say to Romenesko in reply:

“The story was not spiked. It was held as we pursued answers to additional questions. That effort is continuing.

“A draft of the story — identified as not ready for publication — was improperly published on web sites in Rock Hill and Charlotte, and in the printed edition of the Rock Hill newspaper. Rock Hill and Charlotte are 'sister' publications to The State. Those newspapers operate inside a common computer system.”

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