Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

March 21, 2014

Campaigns should let reporters do their jobs

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI

FRANKFORT — When Mitch McConnell announced he was hiring Jesse Benton to manage his 2014 re-election campaign – at least the primary portion of it – the five-term U.S. Senator said he wanted a presidential-level campaign.

So far, it hasn’t looked that way.

There’ve been some awkward moments: from the revelation Benton was “kind of holding my nose” to work for McConnell; to an auto-tuned web ad of likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes’ saying her name (which not so surprisingly seemed to increase her name recognition); to an awkward looking McConnell hoisting a rifle above his head at the C-PAC convention.

All campaigns try to control the news by manipulating backdrops, message and preparing candidates for likely questions from reporters and even attempting to avoid uncooperative reporters. But they usually don’t resort to police intervention.

Last week Benton asked a Louisville police officer to bar LEO Weekly’s Joe Sonka from a McConnell press event. That’s the same McConnell who nurtures an image of a First Amendment defender and who criticizes Grimes for avoiding questions from the press.

There is validity to both claims. McConnell has more than once been the lonely vote preventing passage of constitutional amendment banning flag-burning. He cites the First Amendment for his defense of nearly unlimited campaign contributions. Grimes has indeed at times tried to avoid hard questions on multiple subjects.

Sonka wasn’t invited to the Louisville event but learned of it and showed up anyway. Benton and McConnell’s spokeswoman initially told Sonka he couldn’t go into the event because of limited space. But that turned out not to be true and Benton admitted it wasn’t true. According to Sonka, Benton offered to let him in on the condition Sonka not ask any questions. Sonka rightfully declined.

Sonka used to write a political blog. He’s unapologetic about being liberal on some issues. He’s been critical of McConnell in previous articles on the blog and subsequently for LEO Weekly. He’s also criticized Democrats. When I’ve been present at events Sonka covered, he’s been a persistent but courteous inquisitor. But so have others, including, I hope, me. That’s what reporters are supposed to do.

Matt Bevin, McConnell’s primary opponent, has been unhappy with questions I’ve asked about what I think are his conflicting explanations of a 2009 letter from one of his investment firms that seemed to praise the bank bailouts that he now criticizes McConnell for supporting. Grimes’ campaign has complained about press coverage by more than one reporter, including me. That’s fine; we can take it.

Six years ago, Democrat Bruce Lunsford was McConnell’s opponent. He was unhappy when I wrote that some Democrats’ hadn’t forgiven him for supporting Republican Ernie Fletcher over Democrat Ben Chandler in the 2003 governor’s race. He had campaign aides call me and he even arranged a personal meeting to discuss how unfair he thought it was. But he didn’t try to lock me out of press conferences even though I kept writing about Democrats who wouldn’t forget 2003.

I am unable to find anything that distinguishes Sonka’s professional qualifications as a reporter from other reporters covering the campaign. Most of his readership is in the Louisville urban area, which McConnell isn’t likely to carry against Grimes. The dust-up between Sonka, Benton and the policeman didn’t accomplish much except to garner national attention and undermine McConnell’s criticism of Grimes. It alienated other reporters.

So here are some suggestions. Reporters should ask the toughest questions they think will show voters who all these candidates really are. The candidates ought to answer every one of them. Voters ought to judge the answers for themselves.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.