First, however, examine a common assumption about media bias nationwide.
While Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew’s bashing of the “liberal media” is uncritically assumed to be logical, 75 percent of daily newspapers endorsed them over George McGovern in 1972 (compared to 61 percent of the voters). The pro-Nixon papers included the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
The Courier-Journal’s consistent endorsing of Democratic presidential candidates is an only once-every-four-years barometer.
Overall, the paper’s editorials – and opinions written by staffers during and since their stints at the C-J and the defunct afternoon paper The Louisville Times – reveal a rich mix, not a liberal line:
*Consistent pro-civil rights editorials going back to the 1930s, gutsy support for busing during the tumultuous demonstrations against it in 1975, followed by opposition to a proposed police civilian review board and criticism of Rev. Louis Coleman’s largest action for police reform, the boycott of Louisville malls.
*Strong backing of gun control measures, family planning and the Equal Rights Amendment, but generous praise for opponents of the Sandinista Revolution and total support for President Reagan’s foreign policy in El Salvador. A personal opinion piece by a C-J editorial writer called activists against Third World sweatshops uninformed and “liberal do-gooders.”
*A fairly enthusiastic endorsement of staunchly pro-Bush Anne Northup for re-election in 2004, followed by an endorsement of liberal John Yarmuth in ’06 that was “in doubt” until the last minute, according to the blog TheVilleVoice, which also maintained that C-J news coverage of Yarmuth that year was “less than enthusiastic.” (Yarmuth, certainly Louisville’s most liberal multi-term U.S. Representative, is also one of the Courier-Journal’s most consistent critics).
*A weak endorsement of Harvey Sloane in his 1990 run against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a comfortable endorsement of McConnell for re-election in 2002 and pieces by editorial director David Hawpe sharply criticizing campaign finance reform measures McConnell also despised.
The C-J’s 10 Pulitzer Prizes since 1918 included ones for illuminating strip mining’s effects, reporting on the terror in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, an assiduously neutral look at the death of an Eastern Kentucky soldier in Vietnam and hyper-detailing the tragic events of the 1988 Radcliff bus crash.
All this adds up to resolute, unfailing liberalism only if one’s math is blurred by the national drum beat about the “liberal media.” That mantra, far from reflecting modern standards of what is left or right, actually grew out of the cries of segregationists at Little Rock and Montgomery, then was stoked in the late 1960s by Vice-President Agnew, whose hidden selfish reason for trying to deter aggressive journalism is the elephant in the living room in this issue.
Of course, the more sincere media criticism by the right’s James J. Kilpatrick, George F. Will and Mona Cheren also provides ammunition to area conservatives to regularly attack the C-J for being slanted. (Lets see now, in the decades before the internet, where was it that they turned to get this ammunition?)
It is true that the Courier-Journal only reluctantly, under Gannett’s orders, added a column by Patrick Buchanan in the ‘90s, but a spoken statement by Buchanan (once a speech writer for Agnew) is among the many candid words by leading conservative strategists laying bare the myth of media bias to the left.
"I've gotten balanced coverage and broad coverage,” Buchanan said regarding his 1996 president run. “For heaven sakes, we kid about the liberal media, but every Republican on Earth does that."
If that’s too anecdotal, consider former GOP chairman Rich Bond’s explanation of what’s behind complaints of liberal bias. In the heat of the 1992 race, Bond said the claim was part of “some strategy” to shame media toward the right, employed in the manner of basketball coaches who “work the refs,” or complain persistently about referees’ calls to prompt favorable calls when the game is on the line.
Now picture that game over and a coach explaining a loss. The respected, analytical conservative strategist William Kristol offered this revealing thought:
"I admit it -- the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."