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    Cover Photo: Fleischaker (left) and Barton. // by Mickie Winters

    If you’re one of the roughly 600 people Gov. Matt Bevin has blocked on Facebook and Twitter, you might not keep up with how he uses the platforms in an almost Trumpian manner, speaking directly to his followers, often criticizing publications like the Courier Journal and Lexington’s Herald-Leader and even individual reporters. In a time when the president of the United States calls journalists enemies of the American people, some serious questions arise: What is the state of journalism? How safe is the First Amendment? What effect does social media have on our politics? And what can we do about it? 

    To find out, Dylon Jones sat down with attorney Jon Fleischaker, who has represented journalists for decades, and Ryland Barton, capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio. 

    Jones: “Is the animosity politicians are fomenting against journalists really anything new?”

    Barton: “They are all just terrified of the media, I feel. Or of reporters. I hate using that phrase — ‘the media.’ (Politicians) are always kind of on their heels. They’re worried about things getting chopped up and things getting pulled out of context. And so it’s kind of this challenge of building trust with political figures. And then ultimately building trust with an audience which is becoming increasingly skeptical of journalists’ role in society.” 

    Fleischaker: “I’ve been practicing 47 years; I’ve been representing newspapers for about 45, 46 of those 47 years. I think there’s always been animosity, depending on whose ox is getting gored. And it goes way back before that. If you read history, we’ve always had a love-hate relationship — we being the country — with the media. Which is a really interesting term. Try to figure out who a reporter is. You can’t do it. Today it’s easier, because everybody is a reporter. But having said that, I think the big difference is social media and the ability for everybody to get a word out. And the inability of many of us to know what’s accurate and what’s not accurate — what’s true. And that makes it easier for politicians to talk about fake news. In that sense, some of our politicians are doing a disservice that you didn’t see before; that is, they’re not attacking particular journalists — they’re attacking the whole concept of journalism. ‘Don’t believe anything you read.’ I think that’s a real danger that we hadn’t seen too much before. At least in the last 50 or 60 or 70 years.” 

    Jones: “It’s an attack on the concept of truth.”

    Fleischaker: “Well I think it’s an attack on the concept of not only truth but an attack on the whole concept of the First Amendment in terms of speech and press. Once you can get people believing that it’s not worth preserving, then you’ve made a real inroad into: Why should speech and press get the kind of protection that they have now?”

    Jones: “What do you think of Gov. Bevin attacking newspapers on Twitter?”

    Barton: “This is something that the governor has increasingly done — this kind of media-criticism role: Why should you listen to the reporters? Why should you read their stories? Because you shouldn’t have to rely on them to cut apart what I say. Just take what I say at face value. 

    “Really, he’s trying to create this idea that he himself is the media arm. He’s the newspaper. He’s the television station or the radio station. What he’s ignoring — or, I mean, what this argument ignores — is that there’s a great deal of context that reporters provide, and independence certainly in terms of political view. There’s this conceit that the governor and all these other folks are operating on, which is that we’re pushing for some sort of discreet political outcome, like we only want this one particular thing. That’s just kind of a misunderstanding of how journalists operate.”

    Fleischaker: “The whole concept of the First Amendment is: Everybody’s got a right to talk. The more voices, the better. Presumably. And then the public or the citizens can sift through it. The problem is, it’s hard to sift through it if the governor uses social media and is telling people, ‘Ignore what you see in the traditional media. I’m a truth-teller.’ That’s the problem. And that’s the hypocrisy, and the danger, because that’s where you get false information. That’s where you get — if you’ll pardon the term — lies about what is really happening.”

    Barton: “We have a great example of that recently with the rollout of this new governor’s pension proposal. The governor has a political strategy and a very well-worn — I don’t want to say aphorisms, but kind of a list of talking points of how this pension proposal works. And he released a framework of what the pension proposal’s going to be. But if you were just to listen to the governor’s rendition of what the proposal was, you would not have a very good idea of actually the impacts of this thing. The fact that he says it’s not going to affect retiree pensions at all? It actually is. Teachers are going to have their cost-of-living adjustments frozen for five years. That is a legitimate, actual way that pensions are going to be affected.” 

    Fleischaker: “Trump and Trump-like people have gotten into the habit of just saying things so many times that a fairly substantial percentage of people just believe it. But if you get into the specifics — things like taxes or pensions — you’re dealing with individual lives. And it is important to the cop on the beat. Or to the teacher who’s taught for 18 years and is trying to move toward retirement. And they won’t talk about that. They just kept saying, ‘It’s great, and we’ve gotta do it.’ Well, we don’t gotta do anything. Or we gotta do it better. And that’s what democracy oughta be about, as opposed to a President Trump or a Gov. Bevin sitting there and pontificating and saying, ‘This is it, and you don’t need to know anything more.’” 

    Barton: “This kind of moves a little bit away from the First Amendment issue, but, in my opinion, one of the big drivers of this is people just aren’t as interested in reading the news. I feel like I grew up in a generation in which my friends and, frankly, myself, didn’t really know what was going on in the news, especially when it came to local and state politics. And I think part of that is we’re so much more entertainment- and sports-focused. There’s so many other things we can read. And, granted, I love entertainment. I love sports. But it’s kind of filled this — there’s this vacuum of civics knowledge. And politicians have kind of filled this vacuum by reverting to this entertainment style. We’ve certainly seen that in President Trump; he’s a reality-show star. That’s ultimately what his occupation was before being president.”

    Fleischaker: “I look at what Gov. Bevin said about liberal-arts education, and I’m astonished.” [As a cost-cutting measure, Bevin has suggested that universities could cut liberal-arts programs.] “And what it shows is a guy who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand the power of thinking. The power of sitting down and contemplating and discussing real issues. Because that’s what liberal arts teaches you to do. It’s not just about two and two makes four. And I’m not denigrating engineering or math or anything else. I’m just saying that that’s what put this country ahead — the imagination that has developed from being able to think outside the box about a lot of issues. And that comes from the strength of the liberal-arts education that we have in this country, and it’s important. And to have a governor say we shouldn’t be funding it shows an abysmal lack of understanding of what education is all about.”

    Jones: “Do you think it’s problematic that politicians block people on social media? Does it violate the First Amendment?”

    Fleischaker: “I think it’s a really interesting question. And that is a question that is new because of electronic communication. My feeling is that it is a violation of the First Amendment. It is no different than having a speech and — in a public forum, out on the street — saying, ‘No liberals can come. No African-Americans can be there.’ Now, if you’re inside your house, and you’re inside a private place, you can say whatever you want to say. But he’s in a public forum at this point. I don’t know where the courts are going to come out on this.”

    Barton: “I think what the governor and all politicians who use social media have done is they’ve really perverted something like Twitter, which is supposed to be this very informal communications medium, and tried to turn it into this official thing. This is where you get the governor’s statements; this is where you get, heck, live videos of breaking announcements.”

    Jones: “Are you seeing a change in reaction to the media in the courtroom? Like, are open records requests harder?”

    Fleischaker: “I haven’t done a study of this. I can just tell you what my feeling is about it from having done it all these years. Basically, the party that is in power acts against transparency. The Beshear administration in a lot of ways was just as bad as what we’re seeing now. In Kentucky, I think we’re lucky because we have a truly independent court system. And they’re independent partly because they’re separately elected, which is a darn good reason to keep judges elected instead of appointed by the governor, or a commission appointed by the governor. Politics comes into it all sorts of ways, but I would far prefer to have a separately elected judiciary that at least in Kentucky has maintained in large part independence from the legislature and independence from the governor’s office.”

    Barton: “People in power are going to push back against sensitive open-records requests anytime. That’s just kind of the way it goes. Any open-records request usually requires follow-ups. They’re never gonna give it to you on the first time.”

    Jones: “What is the biggest threat to free expression?”

    Fleischaker: “That we stop fighting. That we stop, if you will, putting our money where our mouth is in terms of going to court. That we stop opposing issues. The beauty of our system is that you can always try to expand your rights. The other side of that coin is the other side is always trying to retract your rights. The fight’s never won, it’s never lost. It will be lost if we lose the willingness to fight. And the real danger is that we don’t have the kind of tradition in media that we used to have that had the money to really fight some of these fights, and the willingness to fight some of these fights. And so what you do is you become more reliant on nonprofits like the ACLU, and that puts a real strain on the system. It puts a strain on lawyers who want to do this but have to get paid for at least some of it because they have families. I speak from personal experience.”

    Barton: “I think, on the reporter’s side, the biggest danger is reporters just acquiescing, reporters just getting bullied and being like, ‘Fine, I’m not going to touch it.’ And there just aren’t as many reporters as there used to be. Ever since I’ve been in Frankfort, like over the last three years, there’s been, I would say, around five fewer people in Frankfort covering stuff.”

    Jones: “What’s most frustrating about your day-to-day?”

    Barton: “It stinks feeling hated, or feeling like you’re not being trusted. We just have to keep going back. Getting singled out by a politician — that’s happened a couple times in front of a group of people. Your ears turn red in that moment. You try to keep pushing back, and ultimately you get a good story out of it. But it’s never a good feeling. We’re social creatures, and sometimes it just feels a little bad. I think probably the top of it is being accused of being political, being accused of having a political slant. The one part is, I want to tell people, ‘You know, we all come to the table with our own political ideas. And that ultimately drives how we read the news, what we consider to be important, how we write about stuff.’ But the other part is, I think it’s really complicating the idea of what a journalist is to say that a journalist is taking those political views and trying to advance them. Which is almost treating — that makes it seem like a news story is a press release. Journalists, above all, we’re seeking, yeah, truth, but also controversy. These are the things that ultimately our audience is interested in. We’re looking for stuff that helps explain something to get us a better idea of it, and help our audience understand what’s going on. If we’re just pushing a political line, it’s not gonna be interesting. Nobody’s gonna like that. That’s what politicians are doing.”

    This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

    This originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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