Editor’s Note: Media critic James H. Miller first submitted this column to WFPL, where he had written on a freelance basis since early 2013. WFPL refused to run this particular critique, and Miller — along with co-author (and wife) Liz Palmer — reached out to Insider Louisville for consideration. This column focuses specifically on recent events at WFPL, though its underlying theme — the importance of autonomy, honesty and civility in the newsroom — applies to all local media outlets.
Going forward, Insider Louisville will publish the media criticism of Miller and Palmer on a regular basis. The purpose is not to fan the flames of newsroom gossip, but to ensure local media — Insider Louisville included — is delivering the quality of journalism this city deserves.
Prior to publishing this column, Insider Louisville offered Donovan Reynolds, president and general manager of Louisville Public Media, and Brendan McCarthy, interim news director at WFPL, an additional opportunity to comment; Reynolds’ response is included in its entirety after the jump, as is an author’s note.
—Sarah Kelley, editorial director of Insider Louisville
By James H. Miller and Liz Palmer
Criticizing the hard work of any professional journalism organization should never be taken lightly, but given the subject matter, this particular column was especially challenging. Of course, it’s important for media organizations to hold themselves accountable. As a preface to my first media critic column for WFPL, Gabe Bullard, the station’s director of news and editorial strategy, said, “WFPL will not get a free pass from his criticism. It’s imperative to us that he maintain editorial independence.”
On Sept. 30, WFPL political reporter Phillip M. Bailey vanished from the roster of reporters and editors that appears on the right side of nearly every page on WFPL’s website. The same day, Insider Louisville reported Bailey had resigned.
Within a week, two more reporters announced impending exits from WFPL, which raised eyebrows around town. Erin Keane, WFPL’s former arts and humanities reporter, announced her new position at Salon, while Frankfort political reporter Jonathan Meador remained silent about his intentions.
On Oct. 7, WFPL appended an editor’s note to Bailey’s Aug. 22 article about a public dispute between Louisville Metro Councilwoman Attica Scott and WDRB’s President and General Manager Bill Lamb. The note said the article had been “inappropriately deleted” and that WFPL had “determined the source of the deletion” — which means they figured out which computer was used to delete the story, not necessarily the identity of the person who deleted it.
Bailey, who says he was oblivious to the story’s deletion, continued to promote it on his Twitter account. He indicates he’d pushed hard for the story to begin with and had no motivation to delete it. Although it seems possible the story may have been deleted by accident, interim News Director Brendan McCarthy says that was highly unlikely. (McCarthy became interim director at WFPL in August when Gabe Bullard embarked on a 10-month Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.)
There’s really no acceptable journalistic reason for Bailey or anyone else at WFPL to have deleted the Scott/Lamb story. The Poynter Institute’s Craig Silverman, an expert in journalism ethics and corrections, says that deleting articles does not live up to journalism’s key responsibilities. The most ethical course of action would be to either append a correction or publish a retraction. Either way, public accountability is mandatory.
So we still don’t know for certain who deleted Bailey’s story and why, but it turns out there’s more going on here than a story deletion.
Bailey says he clashed frequently with McCarthy about story ideas, including the Scott/Lamb piece. After WFPL’s investigation of the circumstances surrounding the article’s deletion concluded, management laid the blame on Bailey and offered him a choice: resign or be fired.
Bailey, who still maintains he did not delete his story, describes McCarthy’s management style as “insensitive” and “controlling” — characterizations echoed by one of Bailey’s former colleagues, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
“I’ve never had an editor like him who didn’t seem to give a shit what I was talking about,” says one employee, who also says McCarthy was especially dismissive toward women on the staff.
“He shoots down female reporters’ ideas,” the employee claims, “but then gives consideration to similar ideas voiced by male reporters.”
When asked about the possibility that his management style might be causing discomfort in the newsroom, McCarthy did not answer directly, saying, “Changes happen.”
Back in July, WFPL ran a story about Jessie Colter, a gay man who allegedly experienced homophobic discrimination from a police officer working at Kentucky Kingdom. According to Bailey, McCarthy called the story “questionable” and initially said it shouldn’t be covered; when pressed by Bailey, McCarthy reportedly admitted he was having conversations with Ed Hart about Kentucky Kingdom issues. These details of the discussion were confirmed by another WFPL employee who was present at the time.
Ed Hart is the primary owner of and investor in Kentucky Kingdom. He also donated $250,000 to Louisville Public Media’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, of which McCarthy is managing editor.
“Of course (Hart) is going to say that our story is illegitimate,” Bailey says. “There’s no reason for people in the news department to be having conversations with donors who are also subjects of stories.”
Layla George, director of development for Louisville Public Media, says there is a “firewall” between donors and reporters at LPM. Donovan Reynolds, president and general manager of LPM, reiterates that WFPL and KyCIR reporters “don’t discuss our story planning or process with anyone outside the newsroom” before publication. And to its credit, WFPL routinely discloses its relationship with Hart in stories about Kentucky Kingdom.
That policy of disclosure and separation between donors/advertisers and reporters is what we ought to expect from news organizations — in fact, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics specifically recommends it — but according to sources, at least in the case of the Colter story, McCarthy did not follow the policy.
All of this comes at a time when, by all accounts, Louisville Public Media is doing extremely well. The organization is raising plenty of money and has more sustaining members than ever, according to George. It’s hiring new reporters. It’s winning awards. But losing an experienced political reporter one month before an important Senate election can’t be good for WFPL or its audience.
WFPL continued covering the Senate race after Bailey’s departure, but out of the 14 stories published as of Oct. 28, four had Associated Press bylines. Four other pieces were simply echoing coverage of topics (such as Bluegrass Poll outcomes) already covered by other media outlets. None of them had the reach or impact of Bailey’s stories about topics such as slurs against Elaine Chao, Dan Johnson’s bad checks, or FBI investigations of Louisville Metro government.
This may all seem like inside baseball, noteworthy only to journalists and media observers, but it matters for the same reasons that layoffs and resignations at the Courier-Journal or LEO matter: because it affects the quality of journalism in our community. Decisions by management — hirings, firings, promotions, reorganizations, and so on — that lead to departures of experienced journalists are also fair topics for discussion beyond the watercoolers and breakrooms of the journalism world, especially given that Louisville Public Media is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that receives 93 percent of its funds from the local community.
Just as First Look journalists felt obligated to cover the departure of their colleague Matt Taibbi, we also felt obligated to write this column — partially because we think what happened to Phillip Bailey is of interest to WFPL listeners and the community at large, but also because the reported violation of that firewall between donors and reporters is troubling. That’s something a news organization that regularly touts its independence cannot countenance. This seems like the type of issue the Louisville Public Media Board of Directors ought to address at their next meeting on Jan. 22.
Statement from Donovan Reynolds, along with a rebuttal from the author, on pg. 2