By Al Cross
Al Cross was assistant managing editor of The Logan Leader and the News-Democrat in Russellville, and editor of The Leitchfield Gazette and the Grayson County News-Gazette, from 1975 to 1978. After 26 years at The Courier-Journal, he became director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in 2004. He is a professor in UK’S School of Journalism and Media.
Al Smith, my friend and mentor who died last weekend after a very full life, was known best as the host of “Comment on Kentucky,” KET’s Friday gathering of journalists to hash out the week’s news. He was also one of our state’s greatest public citizens, engaged in a host of good causes.
I knew him best as a journalist, one who exemplified the craft that is supposed to make democracy work. That responsibility is an ideal, one I learned by reading The Courier-Journal as a child, delivering news as a young broadcaster, and studying journalism in college.
Learning an ideal is easier than putting it into practice, especially in the small towns where I first chose to work. The person you write an unfavorable story about one evening might be the first person you meet on the street the next morning, so your personal preferences can interfere with your professional obligations. But if you act in good faith, and people believe you are honest and sincere in your intentions, you can live up to the highest of ideals.
Al Smith practiced the journalism of good faith. He had some strong beliefs and opinions, but he believed most strongly in the value of journalism to democracy, so he always had respect for those who disagreed with him. He knew that he had an obligation as an editor and publisher to let them have their say, to operate his newspapers as fair forums, open to all civil points of view.
When I worked for him in Logan County, he was in the second decade of a campaign to modernize the county’s schools, which ultimately meant consolidating five small high schools into a big one, giving students a better chance to compete in the wider world but also costing small places like Olmstead and Adairville much of their community identity – and, some farmers feared, costing them more in property taxes.
Before I arrived in Russellville, one of those farmers walked into Al’s office and started giving him a lecture on the subject. Al turned to his typewriter, pecked out what the farmer had to say as he was still speaking, handed the typescript to him, and asked him to sign it so it could be published as a letter to the editor.
Al loved the clash of ideas, which made him a good choice to be the founding producer of “Comment” in 1974 though he had never done television. It was a risk for both him and Len Press, then KET’s executive director. Malcom “Mac” Wall, who was running KET when Al retired from the show in 2007, told me, “No other public TV operation would have embraced an Al Smith for a weekly program. It would have been toxic for most. Len was brave, and Al delivered.”
On the show and in his newspapers – including the big Republican town of London, where heads spun when a New Deal Democrat bought The Sentinel-Echo – Al repeatedly proved his intentions to provide a public service: a newspaper that helped the community by making it confront its issues, and often leading the efforts to address them, while trying to treat the competing interests fairly. He didn’t always succeed, but more importantly, he made the effort, and his readers knew he was a journalist of good faith, of honest intent.
They knew that because they knew him. He was engaged in the community, having a conversation with his readers, not just in print, but one-to-one and in groups small and large. He knew those sorts of conversations were a key to real success in rural and community journalism; an editor-publisher and the readers must understand each other. Republicans forgave him for being a Democrat; he had earned their trust.
That is a more difficult task today. Fewer people read newspapers, more papers have absentee ownership, and local news media have been tarred with the national brush of attacks on “the liberal media.” National media have never been as liberal as many have made them out to be, and most national journalists I know operate in good faith. But their occasional errors are easy to amplify, especially if the audience has become accustomed to getting news from media that are mainly conservative shills, and after four years of a president yelling “fake news.”
Donald Trump admitted that he attacked journalism to discredit unfavorable stories about him. He’s the sort of guy who makes people choose sides. In a fractionalized media environment where all outlets are hungry for eyeballs, too many cable-news producers and their paymasters have chosen a side, giving people what they want – confirmation of their beliefs, with opinions and selective facts – and not enough of what they need: broad, factual information that may challenge belief.
Al Smith loved the clash of opinions, but he valued the facts above anything else, and he kept his mind open to facts that might change it. That is the journalism of good faith – driven by facts, not by opinion, and by a search for the truth. Unless journalism values facts first, and makes truth its only agenda, it will not be seen as acting in good faith. Al knew that, and all of us should remember it. Our republic may depend on it.