For someone who claims he can bear the burden of leadership and never misleads the people of West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice spends a lot of time whining about news media treatment while also spreading inaccurate information.
During a Monday coronavirus briefing, Gazette-Mail reporter Phil Kabler asked Justice about Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, contracting COVID-19 and the disregard among some Republican legislators for public health guidelines.
The governor replied that he has consistently preached following guidelines regarding masks, gatherings and social distancing, and that the consequences for ignoring such things are predictable. He said he wishes Steele a speedy recovery.
That should have been the end of it. But, as has happened so many times during these briefings for more than a year now, Justice couldn’t restrain himself.
“Now, Phil, while I’ve got you, I want to clean up one more thing ...” he began.
What followed was a rambling, misleading attack on the Gazette-Mail that had nothing to do with the question, going back to former Statehouse reporter Jake Zuckerman, who has not worked at this publication for more than a year.
Justice said Zuckerman “wrote a lot of stuff bad about Old White Charities,” referring to the nonprofit that used to operate The Greenbrier Classic, a PGA Tournament event, later renamed A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
While saying all of this, Justice attacked Kabler for reporting on Justice’s son buying PGA golfer Bubba Watson’s house near The Greenbrier resort for $2.5 million — which did happen.
The governor accused Kabler of lying about ownership of the house, but neither Kabler nor any other Gazette-Mail reporter ever wrote that anyone in the Justice family currently owned or had lived at the house, just that they had purchased it. (Even the Greenbrier County Assessor’s Office was confused about who owned the house when contacted by the Gazette-Mail. They still had Watson as the owner, then later confirmed that Justice’s son had purchased the property and sold it.)
If Justice or his staff ever responded to reporters’ questions for stories, such reports might be less vague.
Moving on from Kabler, the governor seemed to suggest that Zuckerman’s reporting on Old White Charities’ financial troubles and a Department of Justice investigation ended up costing West Virginia its PGA event, even though no charges were ever filed.
That Justice holds a misguided grudge against Zuckerman and, in at least some way, holds him responsible for shuttering the tournament shows how thin-skinned the governor can be, not to mention untruthful and illogical.
Zuckerman was hardly the only reporter, and the Gazette-Mail a far cry from the only news outlet, reporting on the DOJ issuing subpoenas for financial records from Old White Charities.
Neither was Zuckerman, nor any other reporter in the state of West Virginia, writing “a lot of stuff bad” about the organization. When the federal government is investigating a charity at a resort owned by the governor involving a PGA event, that’s simply news. Justice seems to think the public shouldn’t know about such things and, if a news outlet reports them, it’s somehow a personal attack.
As for suggesting a reporter or news outlet caused The Greenbrier to lose its PGA tournament, that’s flat out false, and the governor knows it.
Old White Charities was being examined because it was more than $10 million in the red. And when Justice claims he was funneling his own money into the charity to keep the tournament going, what he really means is he was taking money from his businesses — none of which he divested himself from when he became governor — and redirecting it to the charity.
The real problem was that the tournament never made any money. The one year it did, government funding was involved.
Having a PGA Tour event in West Virginia was a wonderful thing, and Justice deserves credit for making it happen. It just wasn’t sustainable. Sponsorships, which should have financially bolstered the event, were always lacking. Entertainment and events around the tournament were scaled back each year.
Unforeseen circumstances also played a role. The 2012 derecho that wrecked the course 72 hours before play was to start, and the 2016 flood that forced the tournament to be canceled were massive financial setbacks.
Each year, the event attracted fewer big names from the PGA Tour. Then the PGA moved the tournament from the Independence Day weekend to September, cutting fan attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic was the final straw.
None of that is Justice’s fault. He tried to do something great, and, for a while, he pulled it off. The tournament just never got to the point where it could survive that many bad breaks. A DOJ investigation probably didn’t help matters, but it was clear from what was uncovered that, financially, the event was already on the shakiest of ground.
If Justice wants West Virginians to believe he’s got broad shoulders and will always steer them true, he needs to stop coming publicly unwound every time he reads something he doesn’t like. Being half as truthful as he claims to be would go a long way, too.