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June 2012
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Mitch ought to own up to slip over jobs quote in newspaper

By Steve Wilson

It's not every day when a story in The Beattyville Enterprise - an eight-page weekly published in an eastern Kentucky town of 1,200 people - attracts national attention.

In fact, its piece last week about Sen. Mitch McConnell may be a first.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this is the first time in the paper's 130-year history that an Enterprise story made national news," said Edmund Shelby, who wrote the story. "This has been my 15 minutes."

Shelby, a veteran journalist, has been the paper's editor and general manager since 2002. I called him Friday to talk about the political tempest his story stirred up.

"Economic development is a Frankfort issue," McConnell was quoted in the newspaper. "That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet."

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, his almost-certain general election foe, quickly pounced on those remarks. She called his words "reprehensible" and said creating jobs for Kentuckians would be her No. 1 priority.

"The only job he cares about is his own," she jabbed.

In response, McConnell did what politicians often do when in a tight spot. He blamed the media.

"Unfortunately, it seems my message got lost in translation, and I was surprised to see a headline about my visit ("McConnell says not his job to bring jobs") that sent the exact opposite message to the one I was trying to convey."

Shelby said his quotes were accurate "word for word" and he stands "100 percent" behind his story.

"I'd be glad to take a polygraph if he would," Shelby said.

The editor, who is the newspaper's one-person news staff, said he was having a busy day and caught up with McConnell at the Lee County Community Center just as the senator was walking in to attend a luncheon. 

He had time only to ask McConnell about bringing jobs to Lee County. That's a major concern there since the county has one of the state's highest unemployment rates at close to 13 percent.

Shelby said his newspaper is not Republican or Democratic and "tries to go straight down the middle" on political coverage. It would be hard to accuse him of manipulating the story to play to his audience since party registration in Lee County is more than 2-1 Republican.

So assuming McConnell was quoted accurately, what would account for such a politically thoughtless response?

Shelby doesn't know and said, "He just blew it." A more charitable explanation would be that the question caught him off-guard, his mind was on other things and he simply misspoke. Whatever the reason, he should own up to it. 

(Memo to McConnell's handlers: Didn't any of you hear the senator's unfortunate choice of words? Couldn't you have done him a favor and said, "Mitch, what you told that guy sounds like you're indifferent about a big issue here. Go set it straight with the newspaper.")

McConnell can take comfort in knowing other politicians have made more memorable gaffes. 

Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C., famously remarked, "Outside of the killings, Washington has one of lowest crime rates in the country."  A Texas congressional candidate once said, "That lowdown scoundrel deserves to be kicked to death by a jackass, and I'm just the one to do it." 

Maybe McConnell was thinking about the surveys that show journalists well down the list of most trusted professions. Maybe he figured his spin would prevail because people are more likely to believe a U.S. senator than a bumbling small town editor. 

Two problems with that attitude. Shelby, 65, is no bumbler. He's a past president of the Kentucky Press Association and has won awards for everything from investigative reporting to photography to community service. He takes his work seriously.

And those "most trusted" surveys show people place even less confidence in members of Congress than in members of the media.

Episodes likes this one are not likely to change that view.

Steve Wilson is executive editor of the Paducah Sun. Reach him at swilson@paducahsun.com.

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