Appreciative of a free press and the reader’s right to disagree

Kay Collier McLaughlin
Kay Collier McLaughlin

When I learned I would be a community columnist for the Herald-Leader, an image of the newsroom in the old building came immediately to mind.

City Editor Bill Hanna hired me as music reviewer for the old Lexington Leader — my first paying job as a writer. Having cut my writing teeth creating neighborhood newspapers at an orange-crate “desk” in the attic of my childhood home, hammering out those post-concert columns was more joy than work. I had a byline.

Feedback that both agreed and strongly disagreed with my reviews was a part of writing for publication. It was all great preparation for the years I would spend as editor, news reporter and columnist for a monthly religious tabloid.

It is a proud profession, and one of the strengths of our democracy — a free press. Journalistic training and adherence to professional standards were the hallmark of editors like Hanna, Moss Vance of The Woodford Sun, David Dick in Paris and hundreds across Kentucky who are the shoulders today’s newspapers stand on.

Fact checking, clear delineation between hard news and opinion — all givens. While deadlines and turn-around time in those old newsrooms made for some nerve-wracking moments, somehow, in even the smallest operation, the standards prevailed.

I wrote this column on an iPad and delivered it electronically — a far easier job than finding a parking place in downtown Lexington and taking the creaky elevator up to the old newsroom — easier than pasting up pages to be delivered to Shelbyville’s Landmark Press which printed many of the state’s tabloids.

The thing I am aware of is this: Words are powerful things, made more powerful by the speed in which they are transmitted digitally to today’s untold numbers of readers, often without fact-checkers, and without differentiation between opinion and legitimate news.

The late John Carroll, editor of the Herald-Leader and other Pulitzer Prize-winning papers on both coasts, lamented this aspect of the digital age in a lecture a number of years ago.

His warning came well before 24/7 TV “news” got confused with entertainment, live streaming and personal cell-phone versions of events flying across the internet; and after those years when an editor of the New York Sun wrote his classic response to a little girl who asked about the existence of Santa Claus because, her father had told her, “if you read it in the Sun, it is true.”

Today we have CNN’s Katy Tur being accosted by an angry reader who wanted to know who she thought she was to tell the facts — that “we, the readers, determine the facts.”

I, for one, opt for the old standards and the new technology. That’s what I plan to offer as a columnist, one who is grateful for freedom of the press, for fact checkers, headline writers and folks who care enough to read and disagree, as well as those who agree.

My lens on the world has shifted from the orange-crate desk to Lake Carnico in Nicholas County, with a lot of geography and written words in between.

Moving into this new adventure I carry with me two quotes. The first from Henry Anatole Grunwald, former editor-in-chief of Time: “Journalism can never be silent. That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”

And these words from the legendary Walter Cronkite, a humbling reminder to all who dare write opinions: “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.”

Kay Collier McLaughlin is an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at kcollierm@gmail.com.