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September 26, 2006

Bluegrass Politics : The milquetoast media

Mainstream media in Kentucky could learn a lesson in quality reporting from Big Sky country, where Charles Johnson, state bureau reporter for The Missoulian, recently wrote about that state’s U.S. Senate race. Specifically, Johnson looked at efforts by the Montana Republican Party to use a 2001 vote by State Sen. Jon Tester (D), his party’s nominee for the race, opposing a bill to require library computers to block pornography. The Republicans accused Johnson of “failing to protect children from sexual predators.”The story described the Republican attack on Tester, as well as the Tester campaign’s response. But it was Johnson’s effort to dig deeper that caught my attention. Rather than chalk up the story as a typical pissing match, leaving readers to decide truth for themselves, Johnson did his homework and noted that Tester actually joined 36 other senators in casting that 2001 vote — including a majority of Republicans senators.So Johnson went further and asked Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, “whether Republican senators who voted with Tester also had failed to protect children from sexual predators.” Denowh’s response was telling: “From our perspective, this is just about Jon Tester.”In the end, the story told what both sides alleged, but Johnson provided context and revealed the apparent hypocrisy of the attack. He did his profession a service by not simply reporting allegations but also facts.Compare that to what happened here in Kentucky earlier this month.Last week in this column, I discussed how the Republican Party of Kentucky launched a serious of vicious direct-mail attacks against the campaign of former U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas (D) in the 4th Congressional District, over votes he cast while in Congress during 2003-04. The mailers accuse Lucas of being soft on illegal immigration — despite the fact that members of Kentucky’s Republican delegation had joined him on seven of eight votes in question.Kentucky’s mainstream media were pretty much silent on this hypocrisy.The Kentucky Enquirer story by Patrick Crowley made only passing mention of it, and didn’t present it as fact but rather as an allegation offered by the Lucas camp. When Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Darrell Brock was asked about the issue in the story, he offered, “He does not need to be deflecting this to other members. We’re just trying to point out that Ken Lucas is soft on immigration.” Crowley had nothing more about the apparent hypocrisy.But Crowley at least offered a glimmer of the issue.The same cannot be said for the story published 12 days later by Stephenie Steitzer of the Kentucky Post. Steitzer’s story doesn’t mention the hypocrisy at all and only repeats the attack, giving the Lucas camp simply a few sentences to defend itself. Nothing more.Sadly, this is just a microcosm of the deterioration of political campaigns and discourse, where we’ve come to expect that the only thing as uninspiring as the candidates themselves is often the mainstream press that covers them. Too often, as we see here, reporters merely amplify the attacks, only rarely taking the time to examine them and force the political players to respond to facts instead of simply repeating accusations.I often wonder whether the mainstream press ever stands back and looks at its product and wonders why newspaper circulation is dwindling. Today, only 23 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds regularly read newspapers, compared to 60 percent for those 65 and older. Conversely, alternative publications show continued resilience. For example, LEO’s audience grew 18 percent last year, according to Media Audit.In Louisville, The Courier-Journal, once a venerable outfit, continues its downward trajectory, trying to retain quality while its corporate owner, Gannett, demands an ever-increasing bottom line. The C-J’s decision in December to close all of its statewide bureaus (except Frankfort) was another sign of the times. But doing so comes with a cost, as many observers (including me) believe Lexington’s Herald-Leader, the state’s second-largest daily, has eclipsed The Courier-Journal when it comes to statewide political coverage.Whatever the reasons, be it profit demands from publishers or fewer resources given to overburdened political reporters by editors, the mainstream media here in Kentucky leave much to be desired during election season. But there are good models to observe — all media companies need to do is look to Big Sky country for an example of doing it right. Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org