During the 1978 Kansas primary election, The Rev. Harold Knight, a shrill and contentious publicity hound from Chanute, telephoned the Hutchinson News to demand that his press releases be printed in full – or else. Knight was after the Republican nomination for governor, hoping to unseat the incumbent, Gov. Robert Bennett. Knight also had a habit of suing anyone who disagreed with him.
Knight complained that the press ignored him, issuing noisy accusations that were so outrageous that not even Democrats believed them. I was among more than a dozen people named in one of his lawsuits, asking more than $75 million in damages and alleging, among other things, that the governor, attorney general, both U.S. Senators, myself, and others were co-conspirators in a global narcotics trafficking conspiracy – in addition to our conspiracy to deny him public office.
The lawsuit was dismissed. Knight wasn’t. He continued to campaign, demanding equal time and ink with the governor, insisting that what he had to say was as worthy as what any other candidate had to say. It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop other Kansas editors from worrying about the “Knight problem.”
“Knight is the type of candidate who presents editors with a vexing dilemma … If he holds a rally and no reporter comes, then the newspapers have pre-judged him and denied the reading public the opportunity to dismiss him through their own perception of his deficiencies,” wrote Emerson Lynn in the Iola Register.
AND HERE we are today, wringing our hands over the matter of what is called “false equivalency,” the press’s treatment of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as equals. It may be a stretch over 38 years, Harold Knight to Donald Trump, but the lesson is the same. We have one candidate with experience and credentials, and another who pretends to have them, with supporters who imagine he has them.
Today’s reporters seem to be treating both candidates as though they are on equal footing in the American political arena. They aren’t, but most reporters, fearing accusations of partisanship, tread so carefully that any distinction is lost. So is the object in objective reporting. Today’s reporters and editors too often confuse “balanced” reporting with “objective” or “fair” reporting.
If a candidate for president claims that he did something that he didn’t, it is up to reporters to make things clear, point out the facts. To offer a seriously less competent, and grossly underqualified, candidate the same status as one who is eminently capable, is to falsify the moment. (It is much the same as letting a fib, even a lie, go unchallenged because no expert is at hand to issue an opposing “view.”) This misleads the public by letting them assume the candidates are of similar qualification simply because they seek the same office.
The press is not a stenographer. Reporters are to tell what they know, to illuminate, to reveal brutality or call out a lie when they see it. It is never “partisan” to unmask a charlatan. It’s good journalism.
During that 1978 GOP primary, the Kansas press largely ignored the reverend Mr. Knight, who saw conspiracy behind every truth, and who sometimes got confused enough to sue people who never had any dealings with him.
There is a lesson here. The press was right to exercise judgment about Knight. To do otherwise, to put him on the same level with Gov. Bennett, would be a fraud on the electorate. Thus, when Knight popped up at the editorial sanctum sanctorum, it was a good time to go to lunch.
These days? It’s been lunch time in America since July.