Recent Graduate Makes National News Covering Gov. Barbour Pardons

By Michelle Besaw ’08

When former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour gave clemency to more than 200 inmates at the end of his term, Jessica Bakeman ’11 was the journalist behind the breaking story.

Bakeman, who majored in journalism and English, is a reporter at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. — her first full-time reporting job after graduation.

She said the story that has received national attention “fell into my lap.”

“I actually didn’t know how big the story was when I first started working on it,” she said.

‘That’s When the Adrenaline Kicked In’

Photo of Jessica Bakeman
Jessica Bakeman covers the pardons made by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour at the end of his term.

The story was developing when a prisoner, working at the Governor’s Mansion, who had been convicted of murdering his wife in 1993, was pardoned. Democratic lawmakers held a press conference to condemn the action and announce that they plan to propose legislation limiting the governor’s power to issue pardons.

Since the Clarion-Ledger’s lead government reporter was covering a press conference at the time, Bakeman, a Rochester, N.Y., native, went to cover the Barbour story. In her digging, she discovered that Barbour, in his two terms, had pardoned 10 inmates — eight of whom were murderers.

“I was the only one with that story the next day,” she said. “That’s when the adrenaline kicked in.”

Days later, before leaving office, Barbour pardoned 198 more people and granted suspended sentences to others.

“This story 'had legs,' as many other reporters commented, and so I was attending press conferences and writing follow-up stories for the full month of January,” Bakeman said. “It was exciting and gratifying to stand next to local and national reporters from other news organizations who have 25 years of experience on me and excel. It was an emotional rollercoaster; some days, I got the story and some days, I got scooped. But there were many people with passionate arguments for and against the former governor’s actions and so many stories to tell.”

‘It Was a Rush and an Honor’

She was able to tell some of those stories on other national platforms when she was interviewed by CNN and on National Public Radio’s “On Point” segment. There, she was able to contribute her knowledge to the story.

“I have great respect for NPR. So I went on ’‘On Point,’ where they devoted an hour to the topic and gave me 20 minutes to answer questions,” she said. “We went over the possible topics beforehand, so I felt prepared. And it was great. It was a rush and an honor.”

Today, Bakeman is the only Clarion-Ledger reporter covering the Mississippi Legislature and has continued covering the Barbour story, which remains in national news as his pardons are upheld, despite legal challenges. She has also covered the Republican presidential primary and gone to events for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, meeting Gingrich in the process.

Building a Foundation, Building Confidence

Bakeman’s resume already included internships at newspapers like the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. She cites those experiences, along with her work up the ranks to editor in chief of Cardinal Points, SUNY Plattsburgh’s student-run newspaper, as the foundation of her skills and her confidence.

“As a small college newspaper, it gave me the opportunity to work on every aspect of journalism and to report many stories that were newsworthy on the campus level,” she said. “Working as an editor built my confidence and ultimately earned me the internships that got me a good job just out of college. So I definitely wouldn’t be here without the opportunities I had in Plattsburgh.”

Shawn Murphy, SUNY Plattsburgh journalism chair and faculty adviser to Cardinal Points, said he’s proud of Bakeman’s accomplishments.

“Less than a year into her career, and she’s had several high-profile stories on the front page of her newspaper, including the Barbour story,” Murphy said. “Am I surprised that Jessica is off to such a good start in her career? Absolutely not.

“While the job market today has its challenges, I’m finding that our hardest-working graduates are finding good jobs. Jessica was certainly one of our best and brightest, but she’s certainly not the only example of alumni success in our journalism program. I am eager to continue to track the career of Jessica, just as I have been with all of our former students.”


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