Issue August 11, 2010

Eyes wide open

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” —British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

“Journalists aren’t supposed to praise things. It’s a violation of work rules almost as serious as buying drinks with our own money or absolving the CIA of something.” —Journalist and satirist P.J. O’Rourke

I have been called a pessimist on more than one occasion.

In fact, I would venture to say I’m accused of being some derivation of that term on a fairly regular basis.

Like whenever my U of L basketball-loving friends start heralding the new downtown arena, I tend to kill the mood by relaying concerns about inadequate parking, traffic jams, risky financing and the unfortunate use of an exclamation point in its name (which I find great joy in sarcastically shouting).

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a diehard Cards fan, and a recent tour of the KFC Yum! Center (emphasis on the Yum!) exceeded my expectations. The facility is impressive with its 22,000 wider-than-average seats, six bars, sweeping city and river views, and more than 230 concession points at which to purchase delectably unhealthy snacks. It truly is a striking addition to our downtown, even if the exterior does resemble a massive fax machine (that’s not a criticism, just an observation).

But I’m also a realist, and I refuse to be blinded by my love for this city or for Louisville basketball. Add to that the fact that I’m a journalist, and I am hopelessly compelled to ask questions, uncover mistakes and, when it’s called for, criticize. In the case of the arena, it’s not because I want the city to fail in this endeavor. As it turns out, I believe the arena ultimately will be a success, despite my aforementioned concerns. I just happen to think that an open and honest dialogue about potential problems and possible solutions is the most constructive way to achieve the best end result. Call me crazy.

The same theory should apply to any situation, really, like say, the Ohio River Bridges Project. But that contentious conversation is best saved for a
future column.

So why is it people — public officials and the public alike — are so eager to shut down difficult dialogues and put a positive spin on things, even when it’s not warranted?

I suppose the answer is obvious, and it’s why some people choose not to read newspapers or tune into the evening news: Ignorance is bliss. And while that old cliché might ring true for the individual (although I doubt the ignorant are truly all that blissful), imagine where we would be if everyone embraced that philosophy.

If not for outspoken critics — and dare I say journalists — just think of the corruption and folly that would continue unchecked.

Case in point: Louisville Metro
Animal Services.

Several weeks ago, I was on the phone with a representative from the Mayor’s Office discussing LEO Weekly’s plans to write an in-depth story about the sordid history of mismanagement at Metro Animal Services (“Animal House,” July 28). As expected, I was asked, “Why must you all continue to dwell on the negative? Can’t you focus on what they are doing right?”

It’s a valid question, to which I responded, in a nutshell: “Well … no.”

In this week’s Inbox, one letter writer makes a similar request, suggesting LEO should “quit writing damning articles and give MAS a chance to recover from a bad director and do what they do best — pour their hearts and souls into a selfless, difficult but rewarding career in which they sacrifice much for the love of animals.”

Again, it’s a fair point, and one I completely understand. But it’s not
that simple.

Was the story an unpleasant read? Yes. Did the story focus on the organization’s long list of flaws rather than simply tout its handful of feats? Absolutely. Might there be a more positive story worth telling in the future? I certainly hope so, but sadly, not at this time. I would argue that without such nuanced and admittedly negative coverage shedding light on the dysfunction, that day might never come.

So please, in the meantime, call me a pessimist. And when the tide turns and good news prevails, I will gladly disregard the advice of Mr. P.J. O’Rourke and respond by heaping praise and buying the next round of drinks to celebrate.