Journalist Betsy Z. Russell asks a candidate question during the Idaho Supreme Court debate on May 6, 2016. | Otto Kitsinger
BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) — Betsy Russell, the longtime president of the Idaho Press Club and a dogged and influential political journalist who covered seven Idaho governors, is retiring Jan. 1.
Russell started her reporting career early, joining her high school paper and covering her own graduation.
She earned a political science degree 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 believed really strongly, and I still believe, that we cannot have representative democracy and live in a free country unless the people know what their government is doing so they can freely engage in self government,” Russell told the Idaho Capital Sun.
Russell moved to Idaho in 1986 to cover Boise City Hall for the Idaho Statesman. Over the next 36 years she covered the Idaho Legislature, government and politics for the Statesman, the Spokesman-Review and Idaho Press newspapers. Along the way, she was a part of a team of Spokesman-Review journalists that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for their coverage of Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge standoff in Boundary County, Idaho.
Her coverage exposed false claims made by Republican and Democratic elected officials from the campaign trail to the floor 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 sought 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 about downtown Boise’s redevelopment and an ill-fated proposal to build an indoor shopping mall. Gov. John Evans was nearing the end of his last term in office and Russell got her first taste of covering the Idaho Legislature and the governor’s office when Kempthorne would testify at the Statehouse. Russell went on to cover six other Idaho governors closely — Cecil Andrus, Phil Batt, Kempthorne, Jim Risch, Butch Otter and Brad Little.
Russell’s career included several highlights.
Russell created and wrote the Eye on Boise blog, first for the Spokesman-Review and later for the Idaho Press, that was a must-read for anyone interested in the Idaho Legislature and state government — including many of the most highest ranking and influential elected leaders in the Gem State.
In 2004, Russell and Dean Miller, a veteran Idaho and Washington newspaper editor, created Idahoans for Open Government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to openness and compliance with the Idaho Public Records Act and Idaho Open Meetings Law.
Russell’s 1997 series investigating Idaho prisons revealed the fact that nearly a quarter of Idaho’s prison population was incarcerated for four crimes that are not even considered felonies — simple drug possession, drunk driving, driving without a license and writing bad checks — in a majority of states. The series led to a gubernatorial investigation launched by then- Gov. Phil Batt and led to several reforms. In a telephone interview, Russell called her prison series “probably the most significant story I have covered in my career.”
Russell’s Eye on Boise blog was such essential reading that legislators and and Idaho’s highest ranking elected officials would routinely refresh it throughout the day while working in the Idaho State Capitol.
“You’d walk on the floor, particularly towards the end of the session when things are happening, and a third to half of the laptops (would be reading Russell’s blog),” Idaho Gov. Brad Little said.
Although Russell is regularly praised even by elected officials she scrutinized in her coverage, she does have a critic in Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman — who Russell administered a rare public rebuke of earlier this year.
Russell stepped outside of her traditional role to write a July 23 opinion column in her Eye on Boise blog, writing that Hoffman was wrong to use his position to undermine public trust in public schools, health care and Idaho journalists. In an interview with the Sun, Russell listed the column among her most memorable of her career.
Russell and Hoffman previously worked together at the Idaho Statesman and both served on the Idaho Press Club board of directors. Russell spoke out after Hoffman used his video podcast to refer to Idaho journalists as biased, leftists and socialists.
“Hoffman’s continued agitation against real journalists is encouraging his followers to engage in actual harassment against the hard-working reporters who work to bring you the news every day,” Russell wrote. “It needs to stop.”
Hoffman believes the column was one example of Russell stepping outside of journalistic ethics. Hoffman declined to be interviewed for this article, and submitted a written statement instead.
“Betsy is not a reporter,” Hoffman wrote, in part. “She’s a propagandist, much like most of the rest of the Idaho media. Having spent nearly 20 years in the journalism profession and 17 years connected to it (as an agency spokesman, a spokesman for conservative candidates and politicians, and at the head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation for nearly 15 years) I can safely say that Betsy abandoned long-established standards for ethics in journalism about 20 years ago. She should have left the profession then.”
Russell said she made a unique exception to call Hoffman out, based on her career experience and role as the president of the Idaho Press Club, to appeal to Idahoans to support local journalists who provide unbiased coverage 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 taken care to keep it that way. I am a news reporter, I am not an opinionator.”
Journalist Betsy Z. Russell, upper right, works as Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 6, 2020. | Otto Kitsinger
Russell is the longest serving and most prominent of three Idaho journalists who are retiring this year, joining Bill Spence from the Lewiston Tribune and Keith Ridler from the Associated Press. Russell is also stepping down as president of the Idaho Capitol Correspondents Association. The association’s vice president, Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert, will take over as president during the 2023 legislative session.
Idaho Press city editor Laura Guido will take over for Russell as the newspaper’s Statehouse reporter, the Idaho Press reported.
“It is time to hand over the reins to a new generation of Idaho journalists,” Russell said. “That is why I am also stepping down as president of the Idaho Press Club when my term ends in April. I’m really excited about the talented wave of younger journalists that is coming up in our state. It is their turn now.”
In her retirement, Russell plans to devote her winter weekdays to skiing at Bogus Basin, something she has been unable to do because of the Idaho Legislature’s schedule.
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