Bevin’s attack on news media falls flat

Published 10:40 am Friday, July 7, 2017

By Al Cross

Two weeks ago, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s chief of staff sent the state’s newspapers a column accusing the two largest papers of working “in tandem” to promote “fake news” to “end Kentucky’s progress” brought about by the Bevin administration, which began in 2015.

“It was just the latest salvo in a war the governor’s office has been waging against the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Courier-Journal and other media outlets that cover Frankfort and state government,” wrote Forrest Berkshire, editor of The Kentucky Standard, a thrice-weekly in Bardstown. “Bevin’s administration has actively worked to circumvent reporters’ pesky questions about his actions by refusing to respond to specific journalists, attacking them on social media . . . and taking his message “direct to the people” on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”

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To some, the column from the governor’s office appeared to be an attempt to get the state’s rural papers to side with the governor against the metropolitan papers. If so, it failed, according to Berkshire: “After we received the submission, I emailed every editor on the email list for the Kentucky Press Association and asked them if they had received the column and if they were running it,” Berkshire reported. “Only one respondent said they would publish it. Every other said they would not.” The Courier-Journal published excerpts, interspersed with its replies.

Berkshire wrote, “Perhaps the governor’s communications team thought they would find a sympathetic ear among the community newspapers located in Kentucky’s 120 counties. Most of them cover rural counties that are politically conservative, and so are their readers. What they might not realize, though, is that our reporting on local issues has angered powerful individuals in our communities. Many of us have been targeted in just the same way for nothing more than doing our jobs, asking tough questions and holding the powerful to account. It’s not about party affiliation or even political ideology. It’s what we do, and what our readers expect. Or, maybe the governor’s office thought us journalists in small towns don’t know how to ask probing questions, that we are just a bunch of unsophisticated hacks who will take any manure they shovel our way.”

Earlier, there was a similar column from Steve Wilson, executive editor of The Paducah Sun, the main daily in far Western Kentucky, which usually has good things to say about Republicans. Not this time. Wilson wrote that the proffered column was “a gross distortion of the way journalists work,” and “In Bevin’s ideal world, journalists would do no critical reporting. They wouldn’t question his decisions. . . . They would behave like reporters in Russia and North Korea and other nations with state-run media who tell citizens only what their government officials want them to know.”

The Sun ran the column from the governor’s office, but Wilson reported that the office had cut off Louisville’s WAVE-TV after it aired two stories that annoyed Bevin, and had earlier done likewise with Ronnie Ellis, the statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which has dailies in Ashland, Richmond, Corbin, Somerset and Glasgow, a thrice-weekly in London, a twice-weekly in Morehead and three other weeklies. The column from the governor’s office criticized two of Ellis’s stories but didn’t name him or CHNI, perhaps an indication of its strategic intent.

Berkshire wrote, “It seems the journalistic community in Kentucky largely remains united, and will not aid a governor intent on undermining independent accountability reporting.”

Al Cross is the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.