Former writer says C-J 'has its liberals, but also its conservatives and centrists.'
I spent 17 years reporting for the Courier-Journal as an independent contractor journalist. I was in the newsroom daily for most of that time, working or rubbing elbows with some of the legends of the era of Bingham family ownership.
Those decades of the family’s publishing saw Louisville’s morning newspaper ascend to the heights of the craft nationally, gain wide influence over Kentucky’s politics and public policy and earn the ire of conservatives, who frequently looked skyward and asked how such a rock-ribbed traditional region could possibly be saddled with an inveterately liberal publication.
At the risk of sounding like a former IRS agent pitching his inside secrets that will let you pay pennies on the dollar, I’m writing this to blow the lid off the secrecy that shrouds the fourth floor at Fifth and Broadway, where the metro, suburban, sports and (partially) Indiana sections for which I reported are produced in a daily grind or weekly rhythm.
The ironic tendency of the newspaper industry to conceal its inside information, while compelling all other institutions that affect the public to cough up theirs, fuels speculation – so pervasive and zealous that it turns into lore – that the fourth floor is some sort of monastery of liberal dogma.
Every day during my tenure of 1985 to 2002 must have started with all reporters and editors falling in and – like Wal-Mart associates doing their calisthenics – we would recite in unison lines from George McGovern’s 1972 convention acceptance speech (which was easy for us, since unlike almost all of America, we stayed up till 4 am to watch it).
Then at the end of our shifts, we’d click an icon to run the Lib-Check program that automatically inserts words like “valiant” and “farsighted” before President Clinton’s name and “obstructionist” before any Republican.
And Louis Coleman? Missing a deadline was excused if it was because you were reciting devotionals to him.
Humorous exaggeration aside, some lesser pronounced examples of the above imagery shape the beliefs of many readers I have met about what “Courier-Journalism,” a term used in a boastful 1970s TV ad, must be all about. Doctrinaire, monolithic, single-minded -- so purpose-driven that unbiased journalism can’t possibly make it into print.
And now – after more than a quarter century of keeping this truth inside me -- it can be told (but first, wake the children, call the neighbors).
Here it is: The Courier-Journal is… just like every place else. This is a shocker, I know. It threatens our sense of order, but more importantly, the economic interests of area businesses, particularly computer stores and internet service providers who reap huge profits from hard drives and e-mail accounts purchased primarily to fire off angry letters to the editor of “your liberal activist paper.”
True, the Courier-Journal, based on my 17 years of all-hours reporting and writing, has its liberals, but also its conservatives and centrists.
Oh does it have centrists. Not in the sense of carefully evaluating all candidates’ positions and deciding you’re with Joe Lieberman or Jesse Ventura. I mean the centrism of exasperated resignation to the fact that all politics is the same BS.
Journalists see Democrat Mayor Harvey Sloane in 1977 order a speedup of completion of the museum now called the Louisville Science Center so its ribbon cutting will be before he leaves office at year’s end (the paper quoted sources back then saying the accelerated schedule seriously hurt the museum’s early quality).
They see Republican Louie Nunn kick off his 1979 campaign for governor by entering a room full of ecstatically cheering people, then when told the video failed, re-generate this “spontaneous” explosion by entering all over again.
And of course, reporters document how both parties historically have taken large, crucial contributions from state and local contractors.
Whereas Courier-Journal management has maintained close ties with Kentucky’s Democratic Party’s hierarchy, don’t mistake that for strict partisanship. The office holders with the poorest relations with the paper have been Sloane and Democrat congressman Carroll Hubbard and the C-J callously cropped Gatewood Galbraith out of a group picture of Democrats seeking nomination for governor. The paper then singularly excluded him from most written profiles of candidates in the primary.
But in the non-partisan sense, aren’t the C-J’s people liberal at heart, you ask. I won’t breach anyone’s privacy, but my photographic memory (not to boast, but elementary school chums send class pictures for me to fully tag in minutes) could easily produce the verbatim quotes to end the notion that your news is poisoned by collective personal slant in any clear direction.
Conversations with reporters and editors I worked with included these paraphrased opinions from them:
*I don’t want any of our money going to the Contras.
*Unions served a purpose, but they’ve outlived their usefulness.
*Communism doesn’t work; Reagan’s policy in Nicaragua is right.
*Lack of mass transit is destroying America’s cities.
*Don’t include so many girls scores, leave that space for real scores (this freelance sports reporter’s sexist directive to me wasn’t majority opinion in Sports, but it wasn’t solitary, either).
To be honest, opinions on social issues were infrequently expressed; discussion far more often covered the cost of new tires, the Ohio Valley’s humidity, or why Denny Crum can’t adapt to the three-point shot. And then there’s, Gannett is pond scum. As the years went by, that became universal, but don’t get me started.
You needn’t be a fly on the wall for 17 years, however, to discern that the C-J’s journalists overall are about as devoted to pure liberalism, or for that matter, mindful of any ideology as the equivalent number of people working in a call center, a shopping mall or the airport.
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."