Betsy Russell, the longtime president of the Idaho Press Club and a tenacious and influential political journalist who covered seven Idaho governors, is retiring on January 1.
Russell started her reporting career early, joining her high school newspaper and reporting on her own graduation.
She earned a degree in political science from the University of California-Berkeley and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
“Journalism became my career for really idealistic reasons, because I really believed, and still believe, that we don’t have representative democracy and we can live in a free country if people don’t know what their government is doing to make them freely participate in self-government. ‘ Russell told the Idaho Capital Sun.
Russell moved to Idaho in 1986 to report on Boise City Hall for the Idaho Statesman. Over the next 36 years, she reported on Idaho legislature, government and politics for the Statesman, The Spokesman-Review and Idaho Press newspapers. Along the way, she was part of a team of Spokesman Review journalists who were a 1993 Pulitzer Prize finalist for their coverage of Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge confrontation in Boundary County, Idaho.
Their reporting uncovered false claims made by Republican and Democratic elected officials from the campaign trail to the bottom of the Idaho House of Representatives. Russell’s stories led to prison reform and changes in state policy, while her work with the Idaho Press Club and Idahoans for Openness in Government aimed to increase transparency in halls of power across the state.
When Russell first arrived at the Idaho Statesman, she covered then-Mayor Dirk Kempthorne and the debate over the redevelopment of downtown Boise and an ill-fated proposal to build an indoor shopping center. Governor John Evans was nearing the end of his last term in office, and Russell got her first taste of coverage of the Idaho Legislature and the Governor’s Office when Kempthorne was to testify at the Statehouse. Russell went on to closely cover six other Idaho governors – Cecil Andrus, Phil Batt, Kempthorne, Jim Risch, Butch Otter and Brad Little.
Russell’s career has had several highlights.
Russell created and wrote the Eye on Boise blog, first for The Spokesman-Review and later for the Idaho Press, which was a must read for anyone interested in the Idaho legislature and government – including many of the highest ranking and most influential elected officials Leaders in Gem State.
In 2004, Russell and Dean Miller, a veteran newspaper editor from Idaho and Washington, founded Idahoans for Open Government, a 501©(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to openness and compliance with the Idaho Public Records Act and the Idaho Open Meetings Law . Russell’s 1997 series of investigations into Idaho jails revealed the fact that nearly a quarter of Idaho prison inmates were incarcerated for four felonies that aren’t even considered felonies — simple drug possession, drunk driving, driving without a license, and writing bad checks — in most states. The series led to a gubernatorial inquiry initiated by then-Governor Phil Batt and resulted in several reforms. In a phone interview, Russell called her prison series “probably the most significant story I’ve covered in my career.”
Russell’s Eye on Boise blog was such important reading that lawmakers and Idaho’s top elected officials routinely refreshed it throughout the day while working at the Idaho State Capitol.
“They hit the floor, especially towards the end of the session when things were happening, and a third to a half of the laptops (would read Russell’s blog),” Idaho Gov. Brad Little said.
Though Russell herself is regularly praised by elected officials who have scrutinized her in her reporting, she does have a critic in Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation — to whom Russell delivered a rare public rebuke earlier this year.
Russell stepped out of her traditional role to write an opinion column on her blog Eye on Boise on July 23, in which she wrote that Hoffman was wrong to use his position to inflate public trust in public schools, health care, and To subvert journalists in Idaho. In an interview with the Sun, Russell called the column one of the most memorable of her career.
Russell and Hoffman previously worked together at the Idaho Statesman and were both on the board of directors of the Idaho Press Club. Russell spoke out after Hoffman used his video podcast to label Idaho journalists as biased, left-wing and socialist.
“Hoffman’s continued agitation against real-life journalists encourages his followers to engage in actual harassment against the hard-working reporters who work to bring you the news every day,” Russell wrote. “That has to stop”
Hoffman believes the column was an example of Russell’s departure from journalistic ethics. Hoffman declined to be interviewed for this article and instead submitted a written statement.
“Betsy is not a reporter,” Hoffman wrote in part. “She’s a propagandist, much like most other media outlets in Idaho. After nearly 20 years in the journalism profession and 17 years associated with it (as an agency spokesman, spokesman for conservative candidates and politicians, and at the helm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation for nearly 15 years), I can safely say that Betsy has abandoned established standards for ethics in journalism about 20 years ago. Then she should have given up the job.”
Russell said she made a unique exception to challenge Hoffman, based on her career experience and role as president of the Idaho Press Club, to appeal to Idahoans to support local journalists who report with an open mind and are transparent about their reporting and funding sources.
“Over the years, my blog has always been a news blog, not an opinion blog,” Russell said. “I’ve always made sure it stays that way. I’m a news reporter, I’m not an opinion leader.”
Russell is the longest-serving and most prominent of three Idaho journalists retiring this year, joining the Lewiston Tribune’s Bill Spence and the Associated Press’s Keith Ridler. Russell is also stepping down as President of the Idaho Capitol Correspondents Association. The association’s vice president, Kevin Richert, reporter for Idaho Education News, will serve as president during the 2023 legislative session.
Idaho Press city editor Laura Guido will take over Russell as the paper’s statehouse reporter, the Idaho Press reported.
“It’s time to hand over the reins to a new generation of Idaho journalists,” Russell said. “As a result, I am stepping down as President of the Idaho Press Club when my term ends in April. I am very happy about the talented wave of young journalists that is emerging in our state. It’s your turn now.”
In her retirement, Russell plans to devote her winter weekdays to skiing in the Bogus Basin, which was not possible due to the Idaho Legislature’s schedule.
Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence.
https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2022/dec/23/the-dean-of-the-idaho-press-corps-signs-off/ The Dean of the Idaho Press Corps bids farewell