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October 31, 2006

On Media: When it comes to political coverage, it’s a landslide for The C-J

Forget all those silly attack ads and sound bites on television news. Like it or not, the biggest influence in elections around here is produced every day at Sixth and Broadway. That’s where The Courier-Journal editorial board, the largest and loudest voice in elections for everything from Congress to the school board, passes judgment on candidates.The C-J is charged with exerting its influence in two areas. First, it is the only media in town that endorses candidates for every office on the ballot. Its editorial board diligently meets with every candidate, running them through a gauntlet that tests candidates on their campaign platforms and fitness to serve.Sometimes the process can be unsettling for candidates.For example, I spoke to Amy Shir, Democratic candidate for the 48th District in the Kentucky House. Her opponent, incumbent Bob DeWeese, got the C-J’s endorsement.She said her interview was scheduled at the same time as DeWeese’s, and she in fact rode the C-J elevator to the floor with him. Her opponent, she said, obviously knew some members of the board well, based on the warm greeting he received.Shir was disappointed in the board’s decision, but said she was well-prepared for her appearance and was heartened by part of the copy. It said that based on policy alone, Shir “would be our choice.” She said her friends called it an “un-endorsement endorsement.” Others haven’t fared so well. Of Paul Shaughnessy, a Democratic candidate for Jefferson County Clerk, the board led its endorsement of incumbent Bobbie Holsclaw with a disparaging joke, then described Shaughnessy’s performance at his editorial interview by stating that the six envelopes of information he’d brought with him were “less than consequential.”Some candidates complain about the process, but even those with little chance of getting the paper’s blessing show up for the interview. The board considers each race and writes a no-nonsense endorsement on every one. Unendorsed candidates get to respond in 200 words or less, and the process seems to run fairly smoothly. In political terms, The C-J can be counted on as a strong Democratic supporter, though it does occasionally go the other way (it endorsed Anne Northup for Congress in 2004, for example, but went against her this time).Argue with the process if you like, but the endorsements are important and serve as guides for many voters.On the other hand, The C-J’s news coverage of the election is supposed to be fair and balanced, reporting on political events in an even-handed manner. To have these two totally different ways of looking at the same topics is, to some, a reason for skepticism. The logic goes that, for example, if the paper’s editorial board is endorsing Yarmuth for Congress, its news reporters may be influenced that way, at least on some unconscious level. Or, very simply, if someone at the paper supports a candidate, then everyone must feel that way.But that’s simplistic — the two departments don’t compare notes. It’s almost like the division between the advertising department and news — a sacred line that can’t be crossed. The sides come together only at the publisher’s desk. (Note: This is no longer technically true. Recently, Executive Editor Bennie Ivory was placed in charge of editorial and news sides.)As for this year’s race, political operatives in the Yarmuth camp think C-J news coverage has given every advantage to Northup. Ask him about it, and Yarmuth’s campaign manager, Jason Burke, will get downright emotional when making his case.But “bias” is one charge that’s especially hard to prove. In fact, both sides could probably produce evidence that the paper’s primary reporter in the race, Kay Stewart, is favoring the other candidate.Burke says he’s lived in 11 cities in 10 years working on campaigns, and he hasn’t seen anything like the C-J’s political coverage. His theory is that there’s a “fear” factor at the C-J, that there’s a deference to the Northup campaign because she’s the incumbent. Burke and Ivory had a shouting match that will probably live on in local lore.But frankly, any such bias arguments have a big problem — there’s no motive for steering coverage toward either candidate. And although the editorial board doesn’t influence news coverage, the paper’s endorsement of Yarmuth seems to deflate any hint of bias.The bottom line in political campaigns and media is that there’s no black and white. In a close race, both sides will point to what they consider biased coverage. When every word in every election story is scrutinized to the level reached by campaign staffs, it’s not hard to point to evidence of apparent bias.The journalists involved, though, have no motive. I find it hard to believe there’s some sort of behind-the-scenes newsroom maneuvering to make sure one candidate gets better coverage. Choosing what events to cover, where to place stories in the paper and how they’re played is the role of editors. And as long as the local paper is putting the most resources toward election coverage, it should be considered the most trusted source in the city. Contact the writer at rick.redding@insightbb.com