By: Mark Fitzgerald
Government-sponsored news council bill fails committee vote,
but editors at rival Kentucky newspapers continue the debate sp.
WHEN A BILL that would have created a government-supported news council in Kentucky finally died on St. Patrick’s Day, it was by a 9-4 vote in a House committee that has 20 members.
But this low-key defeat of the news council bill ? which had been approved by the Kentucky Senate 23-12 a week earlier ? belied the bruising fight that it has generated among newspapers in the Bluegrass State.
For the news council proposal pitted the commonwealth’s largest paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, against its cross-state rival, the Lexington Herald-Leader ? as well as probably the majority of the rest of the state’s papers plus the Kentucky Press Association.
Even after the defeat of the controversial proposal ? in which the commonwealth would have provided $1 million in matching funds for a news council at the University of Kentucky ? the recriminations continue.
For example, in a March 21 editorial titled “Media cowboys dodge high noon,” the Courier-Journal accused Kentucky papers of being “arrogant” during the debate with their “virtual orgy of self-righteous exhortation.”
“One Kentucky editor,” the Courier-Journal editorial said, “said it all when he condemned the deliberations of a news council as being similar to interference in religion. The public has always suspected the media of holding themselves to be sacred, like the church. Now they know for sure.”
For his part, Herald-Leader editor Tim Kelly said the news council idea “does not seem to be a major issue except in one person’s mind and that person is the editor of the Courier-Journal who is using it to gig the Herald-Leader.”
Kelly said Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe’s vigorous fight on behalf of the news council had less to do with the idea and more to do with Hawpe’s continuing feud with the Herald-Leader.
“The Herald-Leader has become a much more powerful voice in the state,” Kelly said. “Clearly, our influence in the state has increased while the Courier-Journal, if not diminishing, is at least not growing.
“We’ve had seven finalists in the Pulitzer Prizes ? and two winners ? in the last eight years,” Kelly continued. “Clearly, there’s some decent journalism going on in this shop, and I think with the growing recognition we’re getting . . . David’s having a hard time dealing with it.”
In an interview, Hawpe dismissed the idea of a feud as ridiculous ? especially in light of the Courier-Journal’s long history of support for the news council and newspaper ombudsman movement.
Hawpe noted that the newspaper appointed the nation’s first ombudsman and that since the 1960s, it has been a leading proponent of news councils. It was a supporter of the National News Council, which lasted from 1974 to 1984. And in 1984, Hawpe unsuccessfully pushed for a Kentucky news council that would be run by the Kentucky Press Association.
“Does that sound like a personal feud to you? On the face of it, that’s simply not the case. [Advocating a news council] has nothing to do with any feelings I may or may not have about the adequacies of the Lexington Herald-Leader and its approach to journalism, and turning it into an argument between two newspapers is really doing a disservice.”
However, Kelly is not the only Kentucky journalist who personalized the opposition to the news council.
“As proposed, the news council would come down to the big-city newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, through the University of Kentucky, using a million dollars of your money to try and tell me and newspeople around Kentucky how to do the job we’ve been doing pretty well for a lot of years,” Tom Clinton, executive editor of the Madisonville Messenger, wrote in a column in March.
Kelly and others said Hawpe was an issue because he in effect wrote the bill ? and lobbied the Kentucky General Assembly relentlessly.
“In fact, the relationship between the Courier-Journal and [Kentucky] Senate Democrats on this matter is straightforwardly incestuous,” the Herald-Leader said in a March 14 editorial. (The Courier-Journal reprinted this editorial in its entirety March 16 and reprinted pro and con editorials from other papers on another occasion.)
Hawpe proposed the government-funded news council in a 1993 editorial. He described the idea again in a detailed, three-page letter to state Sen. David Karem (D-Louisville) Jan. 5. Karem’s bill incorporated almost all of the elements that Hawpe suggested.
The news council would have been funded by a $1 million appropriation of the Kentucky General Assembly, which would have been matched by $1 million in private funds. Members would have been former judges, former legislators or executive branch officials, and former print and broadcast media owners or employees plus six nongovernment or media representatives.
As with the privately operated Minnesota News Council, media participation would have been voluntary.
Hawpe’s original proposal would have included a sitting member of the Kentucky Supreme Court on the 11-member council.
“That was an indication he had lost all grounding of reality,” Kelly said. The Herald-Leader editor said the current Supreme Court is responsible for three “highly negative rulings” in recent libel decisions.
Kelly and his paper trace the news council idea to Hawpe’s siding with Kentucky legislators against the Herald-Leader, which Kelly said aggressively has covered corruption in the statehouse.
“Every stop along the way, there were references (by the Courier-Journal) to the Lexington Herald-Leader and its treatment of the Legislature, which David is extremely fond of and we’ve been very critical of,” Kelly said.
“I’ve never seen a news editor take up for ? or try to become part of ? the power structure, particularly one that has been hit with, I think, 18 convictions on charges of corruption.”
But Hawpe said newspaper opponents of a news council have been hypercritical. In two editorials, for example, the Courier-Journal noted that newspapers “scream bloody murder” when anyone proposes to do away with requirements for legal ads.
“You can’t applaud state intervention to make local units of government accountable, through legal advertising, then condemn a modest state effort to make newspapers a little more accountable by setting up a news council,” the paper editorialized March 10.
In an interview, Hawpe emphasized that government funding of the council would have been a one-time thing.
“As I said, this would be a turnkey operation. The state would facilitate its creation and then walk away.”
Under the bill, the governor would have appointed the first council members, but subsequent members would have been elected by the board.
Hawpe also said a news council at a state university’s journalism department “seems to me a quite legitimate function for state government.”
Hawpe said the debate about a news council, despite its bitterness, was valuable ? and he remains committed to the news council concept.
“I think there’s a need in any state. I can’t think of a venue in which the media could not benefit from a mechanism for greater accountability,” he said.
Hawpe also supported an idea that has emerged in the wake of the news council controversy: A statewide newspaper ombudsman program run by the Kentucky Press Association, which lobbied against the news council bill.
For his part, Kelly calls the ombudsman idea still “ill-formed,” but he agrees with Hawpe that the debate has been useful.
“I think the rest of the country needs to see how screwy this thing has become,” Kelly added.
For his part, Herald-Leader editor Tim Kelly said the news council idea “does not seem to be a major issue except in one person’s mind, and that person is the editor of the Courier-Journal who is using it to gig the Herald-Leader.”