SPJ Bluegrass Chapter calls for Ky. governor to respect news media’s role in democracy

The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement Wednesday responding to Twitter comments Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin recently made about a reporter at the Courier-Journal based in Louisville.

Liz Hansen, president of the Bluegrass chapter, distributed the statement approved by the chapter’s board of directors to media across the state Wednesday. Here’s the complete statement:

Governor, name-calling has no place in civil discourse
An ethics complaint has been filed against Gov. Matt Bevin, who purchased a house near Louisville from a supporter for $1.6 million. Bevin’s attorneys have appealed the Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator’s assessment of more than $2 million. Courier-Journal reporter Tom Loftus visited the house in March to check reports that Bevin was living there. Despite the fact Loftus, a veteran reporter inducted in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, never reached the house and left when a state trooper asked him to, Bevin called Loftus a “truly sick man” and “peeping Tom” on Twitter two weeks ago.

This is the response of the Bluegrass Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists:

The news media are also protected from government interference so journalists can provide information to the public, to the voters who choose these public officials, and theoretically at least, to whom the officials must answer for their deeds, good or otherwise. The news media also serve as a watchdog, because everyone who runs for and holds office is a man or woman like all the rest of us, with our foibles and our failures. The truth is this: Power corrupts, and power unchecked corrupts even more.
The news media work for the people. Surveys of journalists tell the same story: The people who report the news believe they have a duty, not to the people in power but to the voters who entrusted public officials with that power.

That brings us to one of the state’s most respected journalists. Tom Loftus learned his journalism at the Ohio State University and has been practicing here on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth for more than 40 years. He has demonstrated repeatedly that if a story in the Courier-Journal carries the byline of Tom Loftus, you can trust it. He won the James Madison Award for Service to the First Amendment by a Kentuckian as recognition for his lifetime of work.

Gov. Matt Bevin, however, has a problem with reporter Loftus. This veteran newsman broke the story FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE that the governor had purchased a home at what appeared to be substantially less than its value on the Jefferson County books. And he purchased it from a man who gave to his campaign fund and now holds a seat on a state board. Rather than provide an explanation to the reporter so he could put the governor’s reply in the story, his office declined to return the reporter’s calls and give the voters of the state the governor’s side of the story.
When the governor did address the issue, after an ethics complaint was filed against him, he stooped to calling Tom Loftus a “peeping Tom,” because Loftus actually went to the house to see if the governor really was living there. We call that good reporting. And no one has said Loftus “peeped” in the windows. He was asked to leave before he got to the door, and he did. The governor delivered a stiff arm to the public’s representative rather than provide information.

Name-calling is not something we expect of our elected leaders. People differ on all manner of ideas, profound and mundane, but the power of any argument is lost when name-calling begins. The doctrines supporting the First Amendment establish a “marketplace of ideas” – from discussion and debate, not name- calling, emerge the best ideas. That, according to philosophers and the Supreme Court of the United States, is why the Constitution bars government from censorship except in the rarest of cases, usually when national security is threatened.

We have known and worked with Tom Loftus. He is honest, hard working and committed to accuracy and ethical reporting. He is among the most honorable journalists to have ever written for a Kentucky newspaper.
The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists believes character assassination and name- calling should definitely be beyond the pale of every public official, especially the chief executive of the state.
SPJ calls on Gov. Matt Bevin to respect the news media and their roles in promoting democracy – informing the public, facilitating discussion and debate, and acting as watchdogs. That he sees nothing wrong with his name-calling and refusing to answer legitimate questions about what voters could perceive as favored treatment shows he doesn’t believe he is answerable to the public.

And really, governor, your name-calling is setting a bad example for everyone in the state, and your beloved children deserve a better role model. In fact, if you really want to change the political climate in Kentucky, Gov. Bevin, we all deserve a better role model. We call it character, governor, and this verbal assault on a respected journalist doesn’t reflect well on yours.


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