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.

Political Post-Mortem

For the last four months, I spent my life working to get Bruce Lunsford elected as governor of Kentucky. It didn’t work out, but I’m richer for the experience, and have no regrets. I got a quick, fire-in-the-frying-pan education on the way political campaigns work, and met a lot of great people. I got to run what others called one of the best political Web sites in the country, and got to experiment with a host of new technologies.

I did expect it to last at least a little bit longer. As the returns were coming in Tuesday night, May 22, our group gathered around televisions downtown, holding out hope that Steve Beshear’s number would keep falling as ours went up. I held out hope until Bruce entered the room at the Convention Center, when the sense of doom came crashing down on our team, our supporters, our friends. Bruce was gracious in defeat, taking it better than many in the audience.

I put a lot of things on hold for this experience in politics, including The Ville Voice. As much as I wanted to write independently about the primary campaign, I held back, knowing that anything I would write would reflect directly on the campaign, and we were extremely cautious about breaking the Unity pledge to avoid negative attacks. Yes, I wanted to respond in words to the many who criticized Bruce, but made a conscious decision not to. So The Ville Voice did not become a voice for the campaign, and campaign work didn’t allow me the time, or the mental energy, to write about other topics.

The most-asked question I’ve asked, and heard, in the last two weeks has been — What will you do now? That’s why campaigns are so tough, because losing your job is part of the game. Many of my cohorts on the Lunsford campaign are off working on Presidential campaigns all across the country, or they’re taking some time off, or they’re actively seeking work.

I’ve been a little evasive with my answer. I am seeking new work, but also exploring an entrepreneurial path. There’s a lot to say about the media and political scene in Kentucky, and I’m likely to explore some of those issues right here at The Ville Voice.

So please stick around, post a comment and check back often, as The Ville Voice is back in business.