Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

What it means to be a crunchy conservative

First published Oct. 3, 2016

There are many mansions in the American conservative house, and some of them are old and funky and smell like a pot of organic mustard greens cooking down on the stove.

— Rod Dreher, from “Crunchy Cons”

It wasn’t until I was 45 that I started to think of myself as a conservative.

At heart, I had always been one, even in my 20s, when I called myself a democratic socialist, traveled to Nicaragua, read Hunter Thompson and listened to Neil Young.

I still listen to Neil Young.

Like many of my contemporaries, I had the idea that to be a conservative meant to be a belligerent neocon on foreign policy, a self-centered libertarian on economics and a closed-minded culture warrior on social matters.

I was wrong.

Although I’ve never met him — and he’s several years younger than I am — Rod Dreher had a big influence on my thinking after I had left the Democratic Party over its ideological rigidity, joined an Anglican church and become the managing editor of a daily newspaper.

Dreher’s book that introduced me to a different way of understanding this venerable philosophy had a title that could have been a chapter: “Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).”

Crunchy conservatism, Dreher explained, is not a political program, but rather a “practical sensibility” based on what the wisdom of tradition teaches is best for families and communities.

It is about conserving those things that are good and true.

This summer, I read the book again, and was struck by how much things have changed in the 10 years since it was written.

What a different time 2005 was. George W. Bush was president, Pope John Paul II was succeeded by the even more orthodox Benedict XVI, the Defense of Marriage Act was still the law of the land, legal recreational marijuana was a pipe dream, we were engaged in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how inept big government could be, the housing market was soaring, fueled by bad loan practices, and almost no one could foresee the financial meltdown that was coming.

I’m convinced that if the Republican Party had gone in the direction that Dreher and others suggested, rather than toward the hard-line libertarianism and isolationism of the tea party movement, it would have been able to compete with the Democratic Party for the hearts and minds of younger Americans and could have made a positive difference in our society.

Dreher’s crunchy (read: earthy) conservatism is traditional Burkean conservatism for a new generation. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Dubliner and British statesman, rejected abstract Enlightenment reason and “natural law” as guiding lights. All of us, he wrote, are influenced by our cultural traditions, and while individual liberty is important, community is no less so. We belong to one another, and that affects who were are.

Burke wrote that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. We must learn from those who have gone before us and not rely solely on ourselves. And we must rely on the greater wisdom of the Supreme Being as handed down through the ages.

Mainstream liberalism and conservatism are both essentially materialistic, Dreher argues, and we should not be surprised that neither has led to the improvement of our national character. He describes his book as a rebuke to both the economic individualism of the right and the moral individualism of the left. Its purpose is to explore ways to live out conservative values in a culture that seeks to separate us from our values, families and communities.

In less than 250 pages, “Crunchy Cons” uses Dreher’s own experiences as well as those of people across the country who are living countercultural lives that are socially, spiritually and physically healthier than the ways of the dominant culture. He looks at organic farming and the slow food movement, new urban planning, walkable neighborhoods and aesthetically pleasing architectural design such as bungalows, the attraction of liturgical Christianity to a generation bored with “relevant” contemporary worship, and the understanding that conservation is the essence of conservatism.

“Crunchy Cons” was not a bestseller and is now out of print. It won’t make a list of the most influential conservative tomes, like William Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” or Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind.” But it influenced me more than any other book in my evolution into a conservative, and to see that I had been one all along. I recommend it to others.

You probably won’t be able to find it, though, unless you come across it at a secondhand bookstore or on Amazon, so in the weeks to come, I want to share a little more of it and hope it will stir your imagination, as it did mine.

‘Spotlight’ exposes state of newspaper journalism

First published March 12, 2016

I watched only a few minutes of the Academy Awards this year because I’m not obsessed with celebrities, and I find most movies a waste of time.

Like many newspaper reporters, though, I was thrilled the next morning to read that “Spotlight” had won Best Picture.

The film is about The Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the church’s failure to do anything about it.

It’s a true story that shows reporters and editors at their best — questioning their own shortcomings and holding their work to high standards while coping with the tremendous pressures of the job.

It also spotlights the importance of investigative journalism and the threat it faces in an industry that’s shrinking at an alarming rate.

As actor Brian d’Arcy James, who played reporter Matt Carroll, put it, “You can’t have a free society without a free press.”

There are other sources of news, and some television programs do excellent work. But as Walter Cronkite admitted years ago, most of the work is done by newspapers, and television repeats it. That’s also true of online sites that “aggregate” news from print and broadcast sources.

The weekend of the Oscars, I went out and bought “Spotlight” on DVD. One thing I like about discs are the “bonuses” — short pieces about how the movies are made and the real stories behind the storylines.

With “Spotlight,” there are interviews with director Tom McCarthy and actors on why they did the film and the state of investigative journalism today.

Actor John Slattery, who plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the Globe’s former deputy managing editor and son of the legendary editor of The Washington Post (journalism tends to run in families), noted that The Boston Globe’s news staff today is half of what it was in 2001 when its I-team exposed the church.

He added that the “transformation from news to news as entertainment is disconcerting.”

Newsroom reductions result from several factors, including the loss of print advertising to digital competitors, more media competition for people’s time, and owners’ insistence on profits comparable to what they had when newspapers were filled with classifieds and full-page car dealership and supermarket ads.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, newsroom staffs have been reduced by 40 percent since 2003. That’s two out of every five reporters. And that means many “beats” are getting short shrift.

It’s happening in community newspapers as well. Recently I ran into a young reporter (the son of a reporter) who had just become editor of the weekly I edited for 10 years. I had four full-time staffers and a roster of talented freelancers, and I needed all of them. Now it’s just him and the sports writer.

Is it any wonder most young reporters get burned out by the time they’re 30 and go into public relations or some other career? At the small daily where I cut my teeth, we had a top-notch young staff. One is now a nurse, another a librarian, and another, a Marine reservist, returned to active duty. One who still works in a newsroom does assembly line editing for something like 20 newspapers a night.

Last Wednesday, I visited the Kentucky Capitol for the first time since my stint as an Associated Press reporter and saw some of my old colleagues. On a typical day, six or eight reporters from three papers and the AP handle all of the state government news for the state’s other newspapers and broadcasters.

An older statehouse reporter told me the young man who got his start working for me at a small daily, and whom I watched grow into the fine government reporter for a metro daily had gone over to the other side and was now a government spokesman. I can’t fault him for that. I recently considered doing the same thing myself, but I bowed out because I love what I do. So did he, but he has a family. Most reporters I know couldn’t get by on what they earn if their spouses didn’t work.

According to CareerCast.com, out of 200 occupations in the U.S. in 2015, the worst — based on pay, stress level and job outlook — was that of newspaper reporter. It ranked below corrections officer, soldier and taxi driver.

Many of us who are reporters, however, couldn’t be as satisfied doing anything else. It’s interesting, often exciting, and sometimes it allows you to make a real difference in people’s lives. After a while, it gets into your blood. But it shouldn’t bleed you dry.

The Preacher, the serpent and the library tax

Published Jan. 3, 2015

I remember it like it was yesterday. The Madison County Fiscal Court meeting room was packed with TV cameramen and newspaper reporters jostling for position to get a good look at the Preacher who was leading the campaign against the library tax.

After the ushers passed the plate for an offering, the Preacher asked all of us to bow our heads, which even the reporters did, not wanting to appear the infidels we’re sometimes accused of being. But as the Preacher invoked the Name of the Almighty, suddenly, we were wide-eyed, realizing he was asking Jehovah to smite the library. The daily I was working for then, The Richmond Register, had been solidly behind the petition drive to enact a special district property tax necessary to establish a public library in what was probably the largest county in Kentucky without one. The paper regularly ran a graphic on the front page of a bookworm, and as supporters gathered more signatures, the cute creature was colored in with blue printer’s ink, starting at the tail and working toward its grinning face.

The Preacher, however, thought it was something more sinister. As I snapped away with my Pentax, the slight figure held up a copy of the Register to show to the crowd.

“Isn’t it fitting that the enemy have chosen as their symbol a serpent?” he said.

Or words to that effect.

I was dumfounded, but when I recovered my senses, I piped up.

“Reverend,” I said, “I think that is a bookworm, not a serpent.”

The Preacher glared at me, looked at the picture, then back at me and said: “Son, I grew up on a farm, and I know a snake when I see one!”

That was the tenor of the debate over the library tax in Madison County in the early 1990s. Some of the arguments I heard against the library at a big public forum on Eastern Kentucky University’s campus was that children would read salacious literature that would corrupt their innocent minds, and if teenagers got too much book learning, their families wouldn’t be able to keep them down on the farm.

I remember one of the pressmen, whose name was Michael J. Fox (I’m not making this up) railing against the tax until I told him how much it would cost, and he switched sides on the spot. The only taxable property he owned was an old car, so the tax he paid in a year would be about what he’d pay for a lunch date at KFC.

Fortunately, the petition passed, the property tax was levied, and the library was established in a vacant storefront in Berea while plans were made to build facilities in Berea and Richmond. Now Madison County has a great library system, and my good friend Ruthie, who was the lifestyles editor of the Register at the time, is its director.

This memory came to mind recently when I was working on a story about judges’ rulings in two tax suits that, if upheld by the state Court of Appeals, could have dire consequences for libraries across the state.

In 2013, the courts sided with the plaintiffs, who opposed property tax increases in their counties. Library districts have for decades been following the 1979 law enacted by House Bill 44 that allows tax increases without a referendum as long as the increase doesn’t raise 4 percent more revenue than the year before. (Nelson County hasn’t had such a tax increase since 1990.) But the plaintiffs found an obscure 1964 law that says a library district created by a petition must submit all tax increases to the voters for their approval, and if it’s upheld, libraries could be compelled to refund taxpayers. In Nelson County’s case, if the board has to go all the way back to the 1990 referendum, it could mean a loss of 59 percent of the library’s funding. “We could survive,” Sharon Shanks, the local library director, told me, but the library would have to severely reduce services.

“For some libraries it would be total devastation,” she said.

That’s OK with Campbell County Commissioner Charlie Coleman, a tea party activist who supports the lawsuits. He told a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader:

“Libraries aren’t bad, but in lean financial times, you can’t be spending all your money on luxuries like libraries when you have other critical needs, like roads and jails.”

Luxuries?

Try telling the high school student who’s working on a research report on a Sunday afternoon at the library, or the job seeker who’s filling out an application using the library’s Wi-Fi because she doesn’t have Internet access at home that the library is a luxury. Tell the elderly person on a fixed income who can’t afford books, but who is still reading and learning, that libraries aren’t needed.

Nelson County’s library tax is currently 8.1 cents per $100 of assessed value. On a typical $70,000 home, that’s $1.09 a week, or as Shanks put it, “pennies on the hundred” for thousands of dollars worth of services that belong to and benefit the people of Nelson County.

That’s a pretty good public investment if you ask me.

I wonder whether, 20 years later, the Preacher would disagree.

Honestly, Abe Lincoln did not say that

Saturday, November 22, 2014

“The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it’s difficult to discern whether or not they are genuine.” — Abraham Lincoln

This satirical “quotation” is one I recently posted on Facebook for laughs.

It’s a tribute to the sagacity of America’s greatest president that many of us want to give Lincoln credit for things he didn’t say when did say so much that is worth repeating.

I’m usually careful about verifying the authenticity of anything I read on the Internet, but a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t careful enough.

In my Nov. 9 column, I wrote about what it means to be a “Lincoln Republican.” I included this quote attributed to Lincoln about the dangers to democracy caused by the stratification of wealth:

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. … corporations have been enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

I attempted to verify its authenticity and learned it was included in a letter to a Col. William F. Elkins on Nov. 21, 1864.

It reflected Heather Cox Richardson’s description of Lincoln’s views in her history of the Republican Party, “To Make Men Free.” She describes the Kentucky of Lincoln’s youth as a place where the slaveholding aristocracy made it hard for men like his father to get ahead because the wealthy owned the best land and controlled the government and its laws.

In 1816, the Lincolns moved north of the Ohio River, where the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had established a land of opportunity by prohibiting slavery and primogeniture, the tradition of a landowner bequeathing all of his property to the eldest son to keep large estates intact. The Republican Party was later founded there on such egalitarian ideals.

The quote also mirrored Lincoln’s speech of Dec. 1, 1861, in which he weighed the importance of labor and capital: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” Lincoln said. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

It turns out, however, that the wealth quote was a fabrication, though an old one.

Tom Hall, a history enthusiast, raised the red flag. In an email the day after my Sunday column, he said the quote seemed “a little too prescient, as if old Abe could see 30 or so years into the future to the day of the big railroads, Standard Oil and the Carnegie steel mills. In other words, this smells like the ‘quote’ is an Internet fraud, and you fell for it.”

Did I ever.

This is what Snopes.com, a website that researches information on the Internet to determine its veracity, said about the supposed letter of 1864: “These words did not originate with Abraham Lincoln … they appear in none of his collected writings or speeches, and they did not surface until more than 20 years after his death (and were immediately denounced as a ‘bold, unflushing forgery’ by John Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary). This spurious Lincoln warning gained currency during the 1896 presidential election season (when economic policy, particularly the USA’s adherence to the gold standard, was the major campaign issue), and ever since then it has been cited and quoted by innumerable journalists, clergymen, congressmen, and compilers of encyclopedias.

So I’m not the first journalist who fell for it. But that doesn’t make it less inexcusable.

I owe you an apology for being so easily taken in, and will be more diligent next time.

What a community newspaper should be

Oct. 3, 2014

What is journalism for?

That’s a simple but essential question we’ve been grappling with in our weekly newsroom meetings as we’ve worked to craft a mission statement for The Kentucky Standard and PLG-TV.

As a reporter and former editor, it’s something I’ve given some thought to over time, and these are some of the conclusions I’ve reached.

• The first purpose of journalism is to tell the truth without fear or favor so that people have the information they need for democratic government.

This is a principle I’ve held to my entire career and one well-defined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel in their primer, “The Elements of Journalism,” which I recommend to everyone, not just journalists.

The phrase “without fear or favor” is a motto of The New York Times, which is still the gold standard of American journalism.

There’s a good reason “the press” is given special mention and protection in the Bill of Rights, and it’s that it has a special responsibility.

Democracy cannot exist without freedom of information, and we should honor that by making reporting on government our highest priority, even if it isn’t what sells the most papers in this cynical and apathetic age.

Selling papers isn’t what this profession is primarily about; it’s about public service.

• A newspaper is a sacred trust. Any paper worth its name must put the public interest and integrity before profit or politics. If it doesn’t, it will fail and it will deserve to fail.

If our sources in government think we care more about controversy for the sake of page views than about the important work they do day in and day out, they will lose trust in us, and so will our more intelligent and thoughtful readers. And they are the ones who are our most loyal customers and the people who lead our communities — usually quietly and without necessarily being out front.

• Journalism is, to use Kovach and Rosentiel’s phrase, a “discipline of verification.” Even in the Internet age, with its fierce competition for information, it is more important to get the story right than to get it first or fast.

Credibility is our stock in trade. Without it, we have nothing.

• Besides being accurate, we must be fair. There is no such thing as an objective person — each of us carries his own baggage — but journalists must be aware of their biases and be careful not to let them influence how we cover the news.

Reporters should be mindful of keeping our opinions off the front page. But even on the editorial page, where we are expected to offer our opinions, we should strive to be fair and independent — especially independent of politics, advertising and financial influence.

• Information technology is changing at warp speed, and newspapers must become multimedia companies that deliver information quickly on many platforms. In doing so, however, they must not sacrifice accuracy, fairness, good writing and editing, and compelling images and design.

Our business model should be based on the knowledge that there are enough intelligent and discerning people out there who are willing to pay for trustworthiness and quality.

• We must always remember that our newspaper belongs not to us, but to our community. It must be a forum for respectful community dialogue involving our readers. And we must never fail to treat those readers, our customers, our sources and the people we report on with consideration and respect.

I’ve been involved in community journalism in one way or another for almost 30 years, and I’m aware that not everyone in the business shares my judgments on these matters, but many do. I offer them here as mine and mine alone.

Whiskey women — an acquired taste

Sept. 24, 2014

Whiskey and women have been a volatile combination for me, so when my editor, Forrest Berkshire, asked if I’d like to cover a talk on “whiskey women” last week, I said yes, but without enthusiasm.

First, a little background.

When I was a reporter for a daily newspaper, I was smitten by a beautiful and intelligent college student I met on a bus on the way to a rally in Washington, D.C. My infatuation was unrequited, so one night after talking with her best friend about the hopelessness of my desire, I drowned my sorrows in a bottle of bourbon.

The next morning at a Fiscal Court meeting, while someone was proposing a tax increase or a big outlay of taxpayers’ money, I passed out. The presenter, I was told, said he thought someone might faint, but he didn’t think it would be a reporter.

Before I could object, the paramedics, who were there for the meeting, had me on a stretcher and out the front door of the courthouse and past a crowd of gawkers. Because it was raining, someone pulled the sheet over my face, and by the time I got to the hospital — if I may borrow a quote from Mark Twain — rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated.

I was mortified but not ready for the morticians.

The paper I worked for paid pauper’s wages (which I misspent), so I had to moonlight as a pizza delivery driver for a few weeks to pay off my chauffered trip to the ER — which resulted in a column about my “pie by night” enterprise. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the first persons I encountered while wearing my Marco’s Man costume was the lovely young lady who had been the object of my misplaced affection. She looked confused, and I felt ridiculous.

That’s just one story involving whiskey and women. There are others as embarrassing.

Let’s just say they were teachable moments.

Twenty-five years later, I’m not a bourbon drinker. I like Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, bourbon bread pudding and bourbon-flavored everything. But, except for the rare bourbon on the rocks with my coworkers at Xavier’s, I tend to avoid the spirit in its pure form.

I might tip the scales at 280 pounds, but when it comes to holding my liquor, I’m a lightweight, so I practice moderation.

Since moving to Bardstown two years ago, however, I have come to appreciate bourbon lore, the sweet scent of sour mash on splendid autumn days — and whiskey women.

Not the ones like Toby Keith’s “Little Whiskey Girl” — “rough” and “ragged on the edges.” Some of the finest and most elegant ladies I’ve met around town are women who are in some way connected to the bourbon industry.

Which brings me back to where I was going with this — the lecture.

Fred Minnick, author of “Whiskey Women: How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey,” does the fair gender justice in his treatment of the important role women have played in the development of whiskey. After hearing his fascinating talk, I have a deeper respect for female pioneers and entrepreneurs — like Margie Mattingly Samuels, who came up with the Maker’s Mark name and the distinctive red wax design — as well as a new generation of bourbon businesswomen.

Strong women and strong spirits are acquired tastes.

Let’s just call it a teachable moment.

——

During a presentation on cocktails by Joy Perrine, the “Bad Girl of Bourbon,” Jude Talbott asked how I could be in Bardstown and Scotland at the same time, because he had seen pictures on Facebook and read my posts about the referendum on Scotland’s independence. Anyone who follows me on social media knows I’ve been obsessed with the subject because I love Britain and was thrilled the Scots voted to remain part of that great union.

However, I’ve never actually visited Scotland. I’ve traveled by train through the Garden of England, overlooked the dreaming spires of Oxford, trod the bricks of Grafton Street in Dublin and witnessed fairytale rainbows on Antrim’s craggy coast, but the part of those pleasant isles I’ve never seen is the country of my ancestry, Scotland. It’s on my bucket list, though, and when I get there, I hope it’s still part of the United Kingdom.

“What we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder,” said one of my favorite Scots, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

I’ll drink to that.

Two years of telling stories in my new Kentucky home

Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 12:50 pm

On an unusually cool July morning, the sweet scent of whiskey mash hangs heavy in the air over Bardstown. I used to think the aroma was from a former bakery downtown, until the proprietor told me what it was.

Today it smells like home.

It was two years ago this week that I moved here from Winchester and started working for The Kentucky Standard as a reporter, photographer, copy editor and columnist.

That summer wasn’t mild like this one. Temperatures topped 100 degrees, and I looked forward to swimming at night at the Bardstown Parkview Motel, which was my residence for the first month. The vintage motor inn is in a leafy neighborhood that includes My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

These days I live in an efficiency behind the newspaper office and above one of the downtown businesses. It’s close quarters, but a good location. I can walk to the office, restaurants, the bank and the Episcopal Church.

I suppose if I were here for 20 years instead of two, I would still be a “brought in,” because Bardstown is traditional that way, and family ties in this old town are important. But it’s also a progressive small city in many ways, and one that exudes hospitality.

In my 30 years as a community newspaperman in Kentucky, I’ve felt welcome almost everywhere I’ve lived, but I’ve never felt more appreciated than during my time here. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me they liked something I wrote, or that they read my Sunday column every week, or that they’re pleased I’m here and hope I’ll stay. For an introverted and sometimes insecure writer, that kind of affirmation means everything.

This has been a pleasant place to live and work, and I’ve done some of my best and most interesting work here (interesting to me, and I hope, to our readers). That was especially true of that first splendid summer and fall.

My first front-page story was a “special report” on the uninsured in Nelson County, in which I interviewed Jan Tronzo and Linda Simms. I now serve with them on the board of Nelson County’s free community clinic.

That summer I met some of the Sons of Bardstown, members of the local National Guard artillery unit who survived a horrific battle during the Vietnam War that claimed the lives of several of their brothers in arms.

Although I’m not Catholic, I was fascinated by the history of the Kentucky Holy Land and enjoyed writing about the Abbey of Gethsemani, the mission work of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the 220th anniversary of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Fairfield.

I’m also not a bourbon connoisseur, but I was intrigued by the bourbon lore of Bardstown and its environs, and enjoyed my first Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

I also had fun at my first Buttermilk Days, though I’ve never had a taste for wild game, and I’ve always preferred dry red wine to the sweet, heady homemade stuff offered there.

Inevitably, there have also been tragic stories that I would rather not have had to write about, most notably the murder or Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis. But even in that case, it was inspiring to see an entire community honor a fallen hero and show solidarity with his family, fellow officers and one another. It shows how strong are the ties that bind us.

That kind of kinship is part of what attracted me and keeps me here.

Politics and candor aren’t incompatible

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes are as different as apples and avocados.

The 72-year-old Senate Republican leader has evolved from Rockefeller liberal to Reagan conservative and is courting tea party libertarians in his toughest contest in 30 years. His 35-year-old challenger is a Clinton centrist like her daddy, a former Democratic Party boss.

One thing they have in common, though, is they’re intent on managing the message.

I became a reporter the same year McConnell became a senator, and I’ve been impressed and annoyed by his ability to stay on message. Ask him a question, and he’ll give you a scripted statement. Ask it in a different way, and he’ll repeat it.

That seems to be something Grimes has learned as well.

Grimes has been criticized for being short on specifics. So when she came to Bardstown a few days before the primary, I prepared a list of specific questions. Before I could question her, an aide, Preston Maddock, questioned me about what I was going to ask her.

I had only a moment, so I rolled two questions into one. I noted that she had been attacked in ads linking her to President Obama’s “war on coal” and “Obamacare,” so I asked her to tell me one thing she would do to protect coal jobs and one change she would make to the Affordable Care Act.

I wrote that Grimes “didn’t directly answer the question” about coal jobs. On health reform, I quoted her as saying Congress should allow people to keep their doctors and “streamline the enrollment process.”

Short on specifics.

Matthew Fogle, our PLG-TV reporter, didn’t get to ask a question. He also tried to video my interview, but Maddock thrust his hand into the lens and said they were out of time. Fogle tweeted that Grimes didn’t have time for him, and I got a call from the campaign asking that we take down the Twitter feed and Facebook post.

Later I got a call from campaign press secretary Charly Norton asking that I “tweak” the line about Grimes not answering the coal jobs question. Didn’t I receive a copy of her jobs plan? Well, no. But that isn’t how I operate. I’m a reporter. I don’t eat handouts.

Norton sent me a link to the jobs plan. It was boilerplate. As a senator, Grimes would “spare no effort to persuade Washington’s policy makers that a coherent, rational energy policy must have a meaningful, long-term place for coal,” and would call on the president “to do the right thing.”

Short on specifics.

It hasn’t always been that way. In the 1980s, politicians gave detailed policy statements. A few, like Senate mavericks Rand Paul of Kentucky and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, still do, but they’re the exceptions. They’re also respected and popular. Maybe there’s a connection.

It’s hard to imagine a time before social media and sound bites when candidates said what they meant and meant what they said. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Bobby Kennedy sought the antiwar youth vote but had the guts to tell college students their deferments were unfair to poor black kids who were fighting in their place. He even admitted his culpability in the Vietnam debacle, quoting Socrates: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride.”

Admit mistakes? Repent of pride? Unthinkable!

Kennedy also talked to hostile medical students at Indiana University about providing health clinics for poor neighborhoods. When one student asked where the money would come from, Kennedy pointed his finger at him, and said, “From you!”

Specific, honest and to the point.

We need that kind of candor again.

In defense of the ‘mainstream media’

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Journalists are not objective.

Since the rise of talk radio 20 years ago, critics of what they’ve derisively labeled the “mainstream media” have challenged those of us in it — reporters and editors for newspapers, public radio and the old television network newscasts —to admit it, and so I’ll oblige them.

Reporters aren’t objective because we’re people, and people aren’t objective. Each of us has prejudices and experiences that color how we see the world around us, the same as any teacher, farmer or factory worker has. We all bring our own baggage.

Those of us trained in the craft of reporting and editing the news, however, are taught to be aware of our predispositions and take care that we are not blinded by our opaque views. We also strive — to use the motto of Fox News — to be “fair and balanced.” But that doesn’t mean we give equal weight to truth and travesty.

If CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow had given equal time to the Nazis on the eve of World War II, his listeners would have thought him unfair — and probably unbalanced.

Similarly, no thinking person would have considered David Halberstam of The New York Times a credible witness if he had treated the Ku Klux Klan with the same consideration as the Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle 50 years ago.

It’s the method of journalism that is objective, not the messengers. As with the scientific method, you look at the evidence and where it leads, then try to solve the puzzle; you don’t try to find scraps of evidence to piece together into a collage that reflects your preconceived notions.

That’s the difference between the mainstream media (which I prefer to call the real news media) and the alternative media of talk radio blather, cut-and-paste blogs and propaganda sites such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars or Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.

Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach, in their superb primer, “The Elements of Journalism,” make the argument that the idea of journalistic objectivity has changed and is now misunderstood. Originally, it didn’t mean reporters were free of bias. “Quite the contrary … .Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work,” they wrote.

Essential to journalism, they said, is a “discipline of verification” that includes the following principles:

• Never add anything that was not there.

• Never deceive the audience.

• Be transparent about your methods and motives.

• Rely on your own original reporting.

Again, these are concepts that separate the conventional news media from most alternative media. Talk show hosts deceive their audiences by distorting facts, taking quotes out of context and making stuff up. They usually won’t come right out and say that they have partisan motives, and they usually don’t rely on their own reporting. They get their information from us grunts in the trenches — newspaper reporters, wire service statehouse correspondents and network television videographers. Then they use that information without attribution, put their own contrarian twist on it, and turn around and bite the hands that feed them by telling audiences that they can’t trust the mainstream media.

Well, I’ve got news for you. These days, the mainstream media are about the only news sources you can trust.

———

A reporter who exemplifies that spirit of verification and independence is Roger Alford, the state Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Frankfort, who was my supervisor during my brief stint as a part-time legislative reporter in 2012.

Roger is a conservative with libertarian leanings, but you wouldn’t know it unless you know him well, because it doesn’t show in his work. He always treated lawmakers, candidates and others with fairness and respect, but he was dogged in getting the story and getting it right. It was good to have him as a mentor, however briefly.

One thing some don’t know about Roger is that he is also a Baptist preacher. At the end of the year, he retired from journalism after 30 years in the profession and accepted a job with the Kentucky Baptist Convention in Louisville as its communications director. It seems to me a perfect blending of his two vocations. I wish him well in his new endeavor.

 

Remembering an old-school newspaperman

Saturday, January 18, 2014

William S. Blakeman, one of the last of a special breed of newspapermen, was someone I had known most of my life.

My first memory of him was when he led my grade school class on a tour of The Winchester Sun’s printing plant and offices in the 1960s. I remember being fascinated by the Associated Press tape with holes punched in it that told stories from around the globe.

As a teenager, I was an avid reader of the Sun and an aspiring reporter, and I almost always read Bill’s columns.

When I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a journalism degree in 1983, I hoped my first job would be with my hometown daily, but it would be 30 years later before Bill offered me a job. I turned him down because I was comfortable where I was. But when my company bought the Sun two years later, I was named managing editor, and Bill stayed on as a part-time editorial writer and copy editor.

We worked together for a few months, and he was helpful in showing me the ropes and making sure I didn’t hang myself. He and I had different ideas about the direction of the newspaper and different directives we were charged with executing, but I liked and respected him and benefited from his experience.

Bill had been editor of the Sun for more than 40 years before I returned home to manage the paper’s newsroom.

After he retired, I found a faded newspaper clipping in the closet of my office, which had been his. It was a poem called “The Indispensable Man.” He kept it there to remind himself to be humble, but I’m glad he left it for me, because I needed the reminder more than he did.

There may be no “indispensable man,” but Bill came close. For four decades, he was the conscience of Clark County, and he was actively involved in the community as a deacon for his church, a founding board member of the Bluegrass Heritage Museum, and a member of the Winchester Kiwanis Club.

He sponsored me as a Kiwanian, and we volunteered together at pancake breakfasts and other fundraisers.

I came to know Bill by working with him at the Sun and through the club. He was a stickler for details and consistency, and led by example. He taught that “just good enough” just isn’t good enough, and that you treat people fairly by treating them the same. He had more nervous energy than any septuagenarian I’ve ever known. Even when he was fighting the cancer that would take his life, he almost never missed a club meeting, but it was sad to see him haggard when he had been so full of life.

Bill was especially kind to me. When I lost my job through downsizing, he told me, “I’m sorry,” and I knew he meant it. He followed with interest my job search and was pleased when I landed a plum assignment with the AP covering the 2012 state legislative session and four months later, when I landed a job with The Kentucky Standard.

Bill and I were working the phones together at a Kiwanis auction that terrible night in March 2012 when I got a call from my AP editor in Louisville telling me West Liberty had been demolished by a tornado, and I needed to get there quickly. As I was leaving, Bill warned me to “be careful.” I wonder how many times he said that to reporters.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned that Bill had passed away. On Wednesday, I attended his funeral and was happy the preacher had us laughing about his wry humor. He would have liked that.

Bill Blakeman was a good, Christian man, and I would like to think I’m a better man for having known him.

Enough said.

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