By Steve Stewart, publisher of The State Journal
Gov. Matt Bevin walked into the lions den Thursday (January 25) night — and stayed for a while.
Of several takeaways from Bevin’s much-anticipated participation in the Kentucky Press Association’s 150th anniversary gala in east Louisville, perhaps most noteworthy was the fact that he arrived early, stayed for the entire two-hour banquet and lingered for another half-hour of small talk with editors and publishers.
The Frankfort-based KPA serves 150-plus newspapers large and small across the commonwealth. King David might have found a friendlier audience among the Philistines than Bevin with newspaper folks, though it should be noted that editors and publishers of community newspapers (the overwhelming majority of KPA’s membership) are as likely to be conservative as liberal. That’s an oft-neglected omission in the “liberal media” narrative that is fashionable in modern politics.
Big-time politicians are known for their “drive-through” appearances at events such as the KPA gala. Skip the rubber chicken, show up just in time for their remarks (16 minutes’ worth in Bevin’s case), shake a few hands when they leave the podium and sneak out a side door. Credit Bevin for genuine participation in a grand night for Kentucky newspapers.
Conversation likely was awkward at the head table, where Bevin sat with outgoing KPA President Peter Baniak, editor of Bevin nemesis the Lexington Herald-Leader. Both took jabs from behind the podium — Baniak commending the guv for giving us “much to write about,” Bevin returning fire for journalists’ hot takes on social media — but the high road also got some traffic. Baniak thanked Bevin for vetoing a bill a couple of years back that would have taken government notices out of newspapers; Bevin acknowledged the critical role of newspapers in an informed society, even while continuing a pattern of surprising naivete about the difference between opinion writers and reporters.
The governor unloaded on a recent tweet by Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen, who wrote, “Red hat is the new white sheet.” For the record, it was a cheap crack by a talented writer whose work I enjoy but who chose the lowest of roads in a Covington Catholic controversy that had already plunged into the gutter. That said, Eblen’s job as a columnist is commentary, not reporting. Same for a Courier Journal cartoonist whom Bevin loves to rip for his lack of “objectivity.” Perhaps in an age of 24-hour commentary on the cable “news” networks, the difference between opinion and reporting has gotten lost with the average news consumer, but Bevin is smart enough to know better.
Granted, too many news reporters, whose job is to report the news factually and unemotionally, are taking to social media these days with opinions on topics they regularly cover. It wouldn’t have been tolerated in newsrooms as recently as a decade ago, and editors would be wise to put a stop to it. In a cesspool of hot takes that gives him plenty of options, Bevin should choose his targets more carefully. The whole “glass houses” thing also comes to mind for a governor known to stick his foot in his mouth on social media.
The view from this seat is that Bevin and the press bring out the worst in each other. Both sides would benefit from an occasional deep breath. On a night that could have gotten ugly but didn’t, perhaps KPA’s anniversary gala reminded Bevin and journalists that the naturally adversarial relationship between government and the press doesn’t have to be hostile.