Gerth’s Late Disclosure

I have journalist friends who chose their vocation early in life and stuck with it. They’ve never ventured outside of media work, and never move on over to public relations, or marketing, or politics. They stick to it when it might be easier to take a government job, or write press releases for a corporation. I admire them. There are many temptations to leave journalism, given its low pay and long hours.

When I read Joe Gerth’s admission in his Monday Courier-Journal column that he once worked for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Steve Beshear, I thought about how rare it is for a reporter these days to have never been tainted by working for a cause or candidate. And Gerth is a competent reporter. I never questioned his abilities or accused him of any kind of bias.

I do question his editors’ decision to make Gerth’s relationship with Beshear public now, two weeks after a contested primary election in which the paper endorsed Beshear, chose not to cover some negative aspects of Beshear’s candidacy, and regularly ripped Louisville-based candidates Bruce Lunsford and Steve Henry. (Yes, I worked for the Lunsford campaign).

The column should have been written the day Gerth was assigned to the political beat. What possible motive could there have been to stay silent on Gerth’s past throughout the primary, only to open the can of worms as the fall election race gets started? Could some blog writer out there have discovered it, motivating C-J editors to make public something they’d hoped they wouldn’t have to deal with? Is there some other reason for the suspicious timing?

Readers deserve to know if reporters have a past that might affect their work, especially a reporter covering politics who once worked on a political campaign involving a current candidate. Gerth was right to disclose his ties to Beshear, but his timing is questionable at best. Too little, too late.

I wrote and sent the following letter to the C-J:

I found it disturbing that the Courier-Journal would have as its primary political reporter an individual who had worked on one of the candidates’ previous campaigns, and then not disclose that fact until after the primary election.

Do the Courier-Journal’s editors believe that ethics rules apply only to politicians? These editors apparently knew that political reporter Joe Gerth had once worked to elect Steve Beshear as governor of Kentucky when they moved him to the state political beat. They apparently think that 20 years, the time that elapsed between Gerth’s days of writing pro-Beshear press releases and his coverage of the 2007 Democratic primary, is the requisite amount of time for conflicts of interest to expire.

It’s not that Gerth’s reporting of the race was blatantly biased. Reporters generally work hard to avoid any appearance of a conflict, and Gerth’s past as a Beshear intern probably had little effect on his view of the race.

However, in politics, there’s always room for debate. And as a campaign worker for Bruce Lunsford (now there’s some full disclosure) who worked to provide Gerth with relevant information for his coverage, you can’t help but wonder about how his personal views may have ever so slightly influenced his reporting. It’s easy to look back at the campaign coverage and wonder why certain stories, especially those negative to Beshear, weren’t written.

That’s not to say that Gerth’s reporting wasn’t balanced. But it is right to question the C-J’s publication of Gerth’s June 4 column (In the interest of full disclosure) and its editors’ decision to wait until after the primary to reveal this important information.

At the very least, it should have been the topic of his first column, long before the race heated up, because readers have a right to know any issue that affects their coverage.