Broken Public Trust Can Sway Elections

Oct 30, 2019 at 10:12 am
Courier Journal

This is part of LEO's expanded commentary before the Nov. 5 election. For more, click here.

It long has been said that two institutions held the Commonwealth of Kentucky together — UK basketball and the Courier Journal. I have long believed that to be true, although, in the last few years, the bond has been reduced to the Wildcats.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, especially since the Gannett Co. decided to close the CJ regional news bureaus, no longer deliver the paper to all 120 counties, confine national and international news to a puny USA Today insert and, more recently, when the storied editorial function of newspapers was suffocated just as surely as the two, little royal princes in the Tower of London.

At first, editorials were reduced from three a day, six or seven days a week, to just one. Then, only occasionally. And now, with very rare exceptions, there are none. The same has been true in Lexington, where the state’s other Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page was, like the Courier Journal, an influential progressive voice especially in the last 30 years.

Why bring this up now? And why should I, who spent 35 years on the Courier Journal and Louisville Times editorial board, 25 of which as an editor, be the person to raise the topic? Sour grapes, some will say. I beg to differ.

Long before I was born, the Louisville dailies were advocating, year after year, for gently but firmly progressive policies, including racial equality, educational improvement, environmental quality, safer workplaces (especially coal mines), honest elections, free speech, equality for women and on and on. For us, few decisions were more important than the choice voters would be asked to make every four years for Kentucky’s governor.

Joe Gerth, the able columnist for the Courier Journal, recently observed that in recent elections, Democratic candidates for governor, senator and Congress start with big leads in the polls, but, again and again, these have dissipated as Election Day approached. And in every case, a Republican victory was the result.

Perhaps it is, as another of my former colleagues expressed to me, that Kentucky is now a deep-red state and the Election Day outcome results from voters “coming home.” There is truth in that. But I think there’s more.

The GOP of Mitch McConnell has fully gained its chokehold on politics outside Louisville and Lexington because it rolls along, like tanks on a barren field, free of the kind of coverage and incisive criticism that the opinion pages in the big city dailies historically published, week after week, as campaigns built up to their conclusions.

Let me emphasize that I do not fault any of the capable writers and editors at either The Lexington Herald-Leader or the Courier Journal. They often achieve the miraculous with staffs much, much smaller than we had even a decade ago. Through layoffs and early retirements, dictated by the corporate bean counters, their credibility declined as staffers with institutional memory were dispatched with lump sum payments. And a whole generation of young, talented people were shooed out the back door with never a fare-thee-well. The bottom line, the shareholders and the earnings reports were far more important than the public interest or the value of civic leadership. Why, they don’t even have a publisher anymore, nobody to articulate to the public the values and vision of a newspaper. No one to be a leader in the city to whom politicians, business people, civic organizations and other newspapers turn to for leadership.

Meanwhile, readers in Kentucky who were accustomed to reading one of America’s top-10 newspapers, the winner of many prizes, the sponsor of nationally admired programs such as the Farm Awards, the National Spelling Bee, Newspapers in the Classroom and so forth, all but abandoned the well-researched, ably written editorials that spoke not for individual columnists but for an institution that, as one former news executive once said, “was here before you were born and will be here after you die.” Sadly, he was wrong.

The last four years of Kentucky politics has been a shameful and destructive time. We have a governor who condemns teachers who are historically overworked and underpaid. A governor who doesn’t believe in healthcare for all and cruelly demands that poor people work in order to get medical treatments, no matter what their conditions. A governor whose solution for bloody violence in depressed parts of Louisville is to stand on a street corner and pray. The list goes on and on. He mocks public schools (his own children are homeschooled), women’s rights, sensible gun protections and even climate change.

Sound familiar?

He’s a dime store version of the current occupant the White House. Sadly, the people who put him in office are the very ones who stand to be hurt most by his policies, not to mention his heartless attitude.

Now, he seeks a second term. Where is the drumbeat of criticism to remind voters of his past wrongdoings to the people of Kentucky? The CJ, to be sure, has done its duty to offer endorsements in key races, and it deserves thanks and praise for that. But was the ground amply laid for these? Certainly, however, these have been far better reasoned than in the last presidential race, when the best the then-staff could say was there really wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump. True, the newspaper has admirably reconstituted an “editorial board,” but for most of its members, the opinion function is a mere sideline.

McConnell used to delight in telling our editorial board that we had no influence in Kentucky anymore and were anachronisms. Yet no one howled louder than he did when an editorial correctly pointed out his shortcomings. He covers his office walls with the work of our great cartoonists — Hugh Haynie, Nick Anderson and Marc Murphy. His career was launched by a Courier Journal endorsement in 1977; Barry Bingham Jr., only days before his death in 2006, said it was the worst decision we ever made, and I agree with him.

When the newspapers were sold in 1986, Gannett sent us the best present imaginable: Michael Gartner, former editor of the Des Moines Register, to be editor here for the transition. He remembers:

“After I’d been in Louisville a couple of months, McConnell came in for an editorial board meeting. He said to me, ‘Mr. Gartner, I didn’t think the editorial pages of the Courier Journal could get any worse than they were under the Binghams, but you have made them worse.’ ‘Mr. McConnell,’ I answered, ‘I have been in Louisville for two months and that is the highest compliment I have received.’”

If Republicans sweep again to victory on Nov. 5, McConnell deserves a lot of the credit. But so do the proprietors of Kentucky’s once-great newspapers, who have abrogated the influence and the responsibility they once possessed. The brass-sculpted words of Robert W. Bingham, which have greeted staff and visitors entering the lobby elevators for 71 years, are still there: “I have always regarded the newspapers owned by me as a public trust and have endeavored to conduct them as to render the greatest public service.”

But has it remained one? Sadly, not so much.

Keith L. Runyon retired in 2012 as editorial page editor of the Courier Journal, where he worked for 43 years.

‘The Heart of the Newspaper’

This is an excerpt from ‘Barry Bingham: A Man of His Word,’ edited by Samuel B. Thomas (1991). In this interview with Mary D. Bobo of the UofL, Bingham explained his goals for the editorial page, and how he ran it.

By Barry Bingham, Sr. (1906-1988)

I always felt that the editorial page was in many ways the heart of the newspaper. I was always interested in the news operation, goodness knows, but I did feel that the editorial page function was especially important and especially vital in a one-newspaper-ownership town, which this became soon after I got back into newspaper work. I think the responsibility of an editorial page editor [the title Bingham held over many years], is tremendous. .  . . 

I’ve had many people say, “Why don’t you just gauge the editorial page on what you think people in Louisville or in your readership area want?” Well, I can’t see that that would be an honorable thing to do, to begin with, because you’re then just trying to be a pale reflection of opinion, rather than somebody who’s helping to form opinion in what you think is the right direction. Beyond that, how in the world would you operate an editorial page like that? You’d have to have an opinion poll taken once a week, I think, of your readers to find out what they really did want. You’d get a great variation of opinion among them. But suppose it came out one week that the majority believed in a certain issue, or took a certain position on an issue, and you hastily adapted your editorial policy to conform to that? Two or three weeks later that opinion might change. We’ve seen these extraordinary shifts in the Gallup Poll, and other opinion polls, as to national politics. . . . You’d have to rewrite an awful lot of editorials, and in the long run, I think, in trying to satisfy everybody, you would satisfy nobody.

One thing I had to realize early in thinking about developing an editorial page of the kind of vigor that I wanted was that it would never be satisfactory to many of our readers. Thus the old saying, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” I sometimes have almost thought you can’t please any of the people any of the time! But the fact is that if you are going to have a bold editorial page, you’ve got to put forth strong opinions on important issues, and you’ve got to make them as fair as you can. But they are opinions. That is what they are. That’s what the editorial page is: It’s a place where opinion should be found. . . .