IT WAS ALMOST too ridiculous to give a second thought: Then-Rep. Rick Quinn sent a cryptic email in which he seemed to take credit for a column I had written in 2014 about House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s attempt to quash an attorney general’s investigation.
But after another newspaper contacted me for a response — it was part of a slide show in Mr. Quinn’s guilty plea on Wednesday — it occurred to me that this was a great opportunity to talk about how I do my job.
Maybe I should start with what my job is.
Or do you want me to start with the email in the slide show?
One of the slides Solicitor David Pascoe presented when he explained the case against Mr. Quinn said that his family’s political consulting business “also attempted to influence the investigation through the media.” As evidence, it showed the top of an email former Quinn employee Trey Walker sent to Mr. Quinn and others with a column I had written on April 17, 2014, “A career-defining moment for Circuit Judge Casey Manning.”
“All the crucial points I tried to make yesterday, and done in dazzling fashion by Cindi below,” Mr. Walker wrote. “Obviously, she’s well briefed by Bob Cook.” To which Mr. Quinn replied: “And others. -).” Which seemed to imply that Mr. Quinn had “briefed” me before I wrote the column.
Read the column Mr. Quinn tried to take credit for: A career-defining moment for Circuit Judge Casey Manning
At the time, Judge Manning was considering a motion from Mr. Harrell to quash the investigation that eventually led to his downfall on the grounds that only the House Ethics Committee had jurisdiction to investigate a House member. My column explained how completely lacking in legal merit the idea was — and how disturbing it was that a judge would even take such a motion seriously. The motion was just the latest in a long string of attempts to quash the investigation, all of which ultimately failed.
I have no idea whether I talked to Mr. Quinn about what was going on in Judge Manning’s courtroom before I wrote that column. It wouldn’t surprise me if I did, because I visit the State House regularly, and listen to any legislators who want to talk to me. And I would be surprised if I had not talked to Mr. Cook, the state’s solicitor general, because I often ask him if he knows of any Supreme Court opinions that are relevant to legal issues I’m exploring.
For his part, Mr. Cook the reporter from Charleston’s Post & Courier that “he might well have shared a legal opinion with you — as he would do with any reporter — but certainly no talking points. He added that he found it a bit preposterous to assume that anyone could tell you what to think.” I told the reporter I would agree with all that.
I used to be a reporter, and I still do a lot of reporting as part of my job. But since 1997, my job has been to write opinion.
So, about my job. The first thing to know is that I’m not a reporter. The job of reporters is to gather information and present it in an even-handed way, without injecting their opinions. Ideally, reporters don’t even form opinions about the topics they write about, but they’re human beings, so that’s not always possible.
I used to be a reporter, and I still do a lot of reporting as part of my job. But since 1997, I’ve been a member of The State’s editorial board, where my job is to write opinion. I pride myself on making sure my opinions are based on facts, and sometimes there are a lot more facts in my columns than opinion. But ultimately, they are opinion.
I also write a few editorials — the unsigned opinion pieces that reflect the thinking of the entire editorial board — but mostly I write columns, which run with my name and my picture. And the opinions in my columns are mine, not the newspaper’s, although they frequently align with the positions of the editorial board.
Sometimes my opinion is different from what anyone else thinks.
I have some causes that are especially important to me — giving governors more authority, comprehensive tax reform, ethics reform, improving our schools, to name a few — and I look for opportunities to write columns where I argue for those changes. But whatever the topic, I see my job mainly as helping people understand how South Carolina’s government works, and presenting a pragmatic approach to government policy.
There’s no one way I decide what to write. Sometimes, I immediately know what I want to say about whatever just happened. Sometimes, I feel like I have an obligation to write about something, but I don’t initially have a clear idea of what to say. Sometimes my opinion turns out to be similar to one person’s opinion, sometimes it’s similar to another person’s opinion, sometimes it draws little bits from what several people have told me. And sometimes it’s different from what anyone else thinks.
In addition to talking to legislators, I talk to to lobbyists. And bureaucrats. And other policy wonks. And readers. And friends. And I read court orders, and bills, and studies, and of course newspapers. And on the basis of all that, I figure out what I think and what I want to say.
And sometimes, several bits and pieces of all of those conversations and things I’ve read over the course of days or weeks or even years suddenly gel into an idea for a column that I wasn’t even thinking about writing. Those are usually the best columns.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.