There is a sordid history of newsmakers, mostly politicians, whose anger explodes into threats and even physical violence against journalists. But in my half-century as a newspaper writer and editor, I’ve never seen anything like the verbal and physical attacks that we’ve seen in the last few months.
Looking back over all those years, I think anger at the press is not a bad thing entirely. It’s far better to blame the messenger, especially a powerful one like a newspaper or a radio station, than to have anger that bursts into riots or other forms of widespread public anger.
But these recent episodes have been different. There’s been plenty of ink spilled over the congressman-elect in Montana who body-slammed a Guardian reporter. Here in Kentucky, though, troubling threats to the press abound.
Gov. Matt Bevin recently declared on Twitter that one of the most ethical journalists in America – the Courier-Journal’s Tom Loftus – is a miscreant. The governor called Loftus a “peeping Tom” and a “sick man” for investigating Bevin’s new home in a posh East End suburb. Meanwhile, the details of Bevin’s purchase of the home – and the deal he got – are murky at best.
The public has a right to know whether the governor got a sweetheart deal from a person who also has dealings with the state. The C-J’s executive editor Joel Christopher called Bevin’s claims “untruthful and absurd.” He is right.
Tom Loftus has been working in Kentucky since the mid-1970s, most of the time in Frankfort, where he is now dean of the press corps and respected everywhere for his fairness, accuracy and honesty. Few could say the same of Bevin.
Bevin’s attacks echo those of President Trump. But I’m afraid going to war against the press didn’t start with Trump – he only made it worse.
More than a half century ago, Democratic Kentucky Gov. Earle Clements got so mad at the C-J’s John Ed Pearce that he threw him against a wall. But neither Democrats nor Republicans could hold a candle to Kentucky’s coal operators, who routinely beat up or threatened a line of distinguished journalists who had the misfortune of being assigned to the Hazard Bureau.
Stephen J. Ford, later the C-J’s managing editor and chief editorial writer, was accosted while trying to report on a picket line. Frank Ashley, later an aide to both Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., was brutally beaten in a resort restaurant. And David Hawpe, later executive editor, was warned that the home where he, his wife and little boys lived, would be bombed. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
The list goes on. I had my brush with violence in the fall of 1975, when I was one of the reporters assigned to cover the opening of school after the busing order.
On the night before school opened, I was sent along with a cohort of other reporters to the Fairgrounds, where a huge antibusing rally included members of the Ku Klux Klan. In those days, I was slight and customarily dressed in a suit. In other words, I stood out.
The klansmen began to get unruly at one point and started to move in on me. Bob Hill, now a noted landscape farmer and then a budding reporter, pulled me away. He’s about six feet five and a former star basketball player. Thank heavens for Bob.
The concerted attacks – in Kentucky, Washington, Montana and elsewhere – are out of line, and even inconsistent with modern history. Americans express their anger through informed debate, not headlocks and mockery. That is one of our greatest innovations.
The First Amendment protects the news media from a government that tries to block gathering and publishing news. Or at least it’s supposed to do that.
Keith Runyon had his first newspaper job 50 years ago at the Evansville (Ind.) Courier and went to work at The Courier-Journal in 1969. He doesn’t consider himself a carpetbagger, either. A former editorial page editor of the C-J, he now presents commentary for WFPL.