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.