How do I put this respectfully?

When people dissemble, they generally are reverting – sometimes involuntarity– to a Darwinian survival mode.

Especially in a big business or financial deal, they do what they need to do to get out of a tight spot.

But a very intentional message embedded in a transparent lie is, “You’re so stupid, we can tell you anything.”

The problem with a Louisville media that it is so incurious and so math- and finance-challenged is that you really can tell them anything.

Take the Kentucky Kingdom project.

The attractive stenographers who call themselves TV reporters just repeated in their standups whatever was in Ed Hart’s news release.

“We’re going from asking the state for a $50 million debt issue to getting a $20 million bank loan.”

Really? Hey, great! When will it open?

The Speed Art Museum officials did essentially the same thing when they announced the $18 million donation from the Brown families.

That $18 million took the Speed board to slightly more than $50 million raised for a bold expansion and renovation of the old museum.

Really? Hey, great! When will it open?

The problem is, Speed Museum officials announced in October of 2011 they had raised $42.5 million of the $50 million. (The total projected value of the project over a decade was first announced as $79 million.) So, that $18 million gift should have – by my accounting – taken the Speed expansion fund drive to more like $63 million.

The media – including Insider Louisville – never asked the big questions. Such as, “Who’s idea is this?” If it was Charles Venable’s ego exercise, do you still asked your donors to build a $50 million project after he leaves?

Speed board members clearly were in a no-win situation. Insiders told us fundraising stopped when Venable left.

But when we queried Speed officials, the answer came back, “No, that’s not true.”

Except it was true because we can do elementary school math on a timeline.

The Speed board announces they’ve raised $42.5 million in October 2011. In August, 2012, Charles Venable leaves to go to a museum that is, at best, a lateral move.

In September 2012, the pledges stopped.

In May, 2013, Speed officials announce they really have raised the money this time, no kidding, with the $18 million Brown gift.

It is to the credit of the board they didn’t just give up.

But what are the opportunity costs of moving forward? What other efforts could the Browns’ $18 million – likely to be the largest philanthropic gift this year in a city this small – have benefited?

Museums are entertainment centers for the One Percent. God knows, I love them. We drove to Chicago back in February to see the Picasso show. I took my daughters to the Speed at least once a month when it was open.

But I’ve never heard anyone – even in Louisville’s art community – say, “Gee, if the Speed Museum only rivaled the Museum of Modern Art. Then we could all die happy.”

My point in all this is not what the Speed should or shouldn’t do. It’s the incredible lack of public conversation about important issues.

I call it the Museum Plaza Syndrome.

“We’re going to build a a $490 million, 62-floor skyscraper not in Dubai, but in Louisville, Kentucky. It will have Class-A office space, condos, art galleries and other stuff.”

Really? Hey, great! When will it open?

It’s perceived as bad manners in this town to ask questions beyond what the people on the podium are announcing, or sending out in a news release.

More and more, executives at corporations and at community institutions simply don’t answer questions. Neither do most government officials.

When was the last time you saw Metro Mayor Greg Fischer or Gov. Steve Beshear sit down with a real journalist for a no-holds barred interview? Especially about finances?

The last time I can remember was WFPL reporter Phillip Bailey’s interview with Fischer in which he repeatedly asked Fischer about issues related to his diverting money donated for his inauguration to pay off campaign debt. A big issue. And it was the last time as far as I can find that any reporter really pressed the mayor to answer difficult questions in detail.

The obedient media themselves are complicit in this Kabuki dance.

A few months back, arena financing critic Denis Frankenberger told me how a local TV reporter interviewed him at length about KFC Yum! Center finances. The reporter was startled by Frankenburger’s data and promised to blow the lid off the arena bond financing fiasco.

The reporter called Frankenberger back a few hours later to tell him, “My producers are killing the story. They’re worried U of L will retaliate and cut off our access to sports.”

Here at IL, we asked city CFO Steve Rowland for an interview after Fischer appointed Rowland to the Louisville Arena Authority, and Rowland initially agreed.

We wanted to know what city officials know about the chances we can keep financing the KFC Yum! Center debt. We thought we all have the right to know, because Louisville taxpayers are covering the $9.8 million hole.

But Rowland and Fisher spokesman Chris Poynter cancelled the interview saying it would be a year before Rowland felt comfortable enough with Arena Authority details to comment.

There are all sorts of societal changes feeding the “no questions” syndrome. More and more, people prefer email exchanges, texting or tweets to actually talking on their cells, and especially in person.

This distance between reporter and sources is not a good thing for an open society.

Because it’s not the first question that gets to the truth. It’s the second and third questions.

Questions we rarely get to ask these days.

And that’s how taxpayers end up with constant MSD rate increases, arenas they can’t afford, $30 billion in unfunded state public employee pension fund obligations and $200 million holes in the Jefferson County Public Schools budget.

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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.

13 thoughts on “Terry Boyd: Louisville media and the unasked $64 million questions

  1. Well laid out . . . for once, Louisville is right in lockstep with the country at large . . .

  2. Well laid out . . . for once, Louisville is right in lockstep with the country at large . . .

  3. “It’s the incredible lack of public conversation about important issues.”

    From running a discussion site about local issues, I can say the following with pretty good confidence: Most Louisvillians just aren’t interested, _or_ are cowed by particular forces from being public about issues they are interested in.

    Those who are truly not interested don’t put pressure on media to dig deeper. At a max, they just keep up with what the corporate media feeds them, and then move along, in a haze where they feel they know much about what’s going on in the area beyond murder, weather and sports.

    Those who are interested but cowed away from going public with their views are mostly made up of folks who fear speaking against the established political class in town, the entrenched right-of-center “Democratic Party” elite. This bunch has controlled just about everything forever and they’re expert at tamping down any resistance. Of course, this isn’t to say that Republicans would do much better, but at least they might begin to shake things up if they could get control of local government for a while (that was my basic thinking behind me, a progressive, openly supporting Heiner over Fischer in 2010).

    The few remaining folks who do really care and like to get involved are spread very thin, and are routinely attacked by the uninvolved as “professional activists” and worse.

    When it comes to dealing with issues in a non-superficial manner in Louisville, the vast majority of the time, you just can’t win. And we pay a very high price for that.

  4. “It’s the incredible lack of public conversation about important issues.”

    From running a discussion site about local issues, I can say the following with pretty good confidence: Most Louisvillians just aren’t interested, _or_ are cowed by particular forces from being public about issues they are interested in.

    Those who are truly not interested don’t put pressure on media to dig deeper. At a max, they just keep up with what the corporate media feeds them, and then move along, in a haze where they feel they know much about what’s going on in the area beyond murder, weather and sports.

    Those who are interested but cowed away from going public with their views are mostly made up of folks who fear speaking against the established political class in town, the entrenched right-of-center “Democratic Party” elite. This bunch has controlled just about everything forever and they’re expert at tamping down any resistance. Of course, this isn’t to say that Republicans would do much better, but at least they might begin to shake things up if they could get control of local government for a while (that was my basic thinking behind me, a progressive, openly supporting Heiner over Fischer in 2010).

    The few remaining folks who do really care and like to get involved are spread very thin, and are routinely attacked by the uninvolved as “professional activists” and worse.

    When it comes to dealing with issues in a non-superficial manner in Louisville, the vast majority of the time, you just can’t win. And we pay a very high price for that.

  5. “The Speed board announces they’ve raised $42.5 million in October 2011. In August, 2012, Charles Venable leaves to go to a museum that is, at best, a lateral move.” This sounds great if it were true. IMA is a top 10 encyclopedic art musem.

    It dwarfs the Speed. It’s 6X times the size of Speed.

  6. “The Speed board announces they’ve raised $42.5 million in October 2011. In August, 2012, Charles Venable leaves to go to a museum that is, at best, a lateral move.” This sounds great if it were true. IMA is a top 10 encyclopedic art musem.

    It dwarfs the Speed. It’s 6X times the size of Speed.

  7. One need only look at the regressive, backwards, and unpopular priorities of the bridges project to understand our local media’s dysfunction. Construction is set to begin on the downtown project and officials are fully aware that the toll revenue will not cover the bond payments. State and local officials are delaying the investment grade toll study because they don’t want to announce bad news until significant amounts of dirt have been moved. Even when this study is completed they will rely on optimistic assumptions and only admit to a portion of the impending negative financial consequences. The fuse has been lit on a multi-billion dollar financial time bomb. Current officials are back-loading the financial consequences (Debt service reserve fund) so there will be no electoral consequences from additional tolling points and increased tolling rates.

  8. One need only look at the regressive, backwards, and unpopular priorities of the bridges project to understand our local media’s dysfunction. Construction is set to begin on the downtown project and officials are fully aware that the toll revenue will not cover the bond payments. State and local officials are delaying the investment grade toll study because they don’t want to announce bad news until significant amounts of dirt have been moved. Even when this study is completed they will rely on optimistic assumptions and only admit to a portion of the impending negative financial consequences. The fuse has been lit on a multi-billion dollar financial time bomb. Current officials are back-loading the financial consequences (Debt service reserve fund) so there will be no electoral consequences from additional tolling points and increased tolling rates.

  9. Wonderfully prescient set of observations, Terry. I could add a dozen more. For years and years this city has been, basically, asleep. When I went to Vanderbilt (as a freshman) in 1958 economically and socially Louisville was twice the city that Nashville was (at the time). Two Louisville banks (Citizens Fidelity [my father worked there] and First National) had far larger deposits than did Nashville’s largest bank, Third National. Today Louisville isn’t even competitive with Nashville. Nashville is actively pursuing mass transit (even though they don’t have the railroad track system Louisville has), their banking deposits are far larger than Louisville’s, they support two major league sports teams (which have clearly not adversely affected Vanderbilt’s success on the athletic field) — and the story goes on. As the now-deceased octagenarian historian, Dr. Tom Clark told me when I interviewed him for my book, Airball, — “Sadly, Louisville, which had a marvelous opportunity to be the financial center of the northern mid-south has ‘morphed’ into Kentucky and Kentucky’s historic problem is that it adores the fruity myth and ignores the brutal facts.” He had dozens of examples. Unless this ‘myth adoration’ (which ignores reality) stops, Louisville is destined in the 21st century to be little more than the largest city in what is quickly becoming a third world country — called Kentucky. Louisville’s unwillingness to deal, affirmatively and directly, with its problems and cease the continual villification with the rest of the State (including Lexington) will be its downfall. We cannot continue arguing with Lexington about everything (including the two universities) – because THAT EVERYTHING is just about nothing, anymore.

  10. Well said Terry. Keep up the real reporting and keep asking the “second, third, etc” questions.

  11. I think your criticism applies not only to Louisville but to the nation as a whole. Anyone who dares criticize the status quo is marginalized and any business they have is effectively blacklisted in retaliation.

    There are no real rabble rousers like Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, etc who can speak for cohesive block of voters, as these men did in the true progressive era. For that reason the right of center Democrats are allowed to get away with plans and policies that would have never been tolerated by organized labor in the decades of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.

    The extreme rightward shift in the GOP is also to blame because it has ushered in an era that is anti-labor and pro-corporate business which, through financial chicanery, has given us elections that are increasingly determined by the amount of campaign money that big business uses to advance it’s agenda.

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