By Daniel Desrochers | Lexington Herald-Leader
“Hey Kentucky!” host Matt Jones will be pulled from his weeknight television show while he considers making a run for U.S. Senate, according to LEX 18 general manager Patrick Dalbey.
“I disagree with the decision, but I understand where they’re coming from,” Jones said. “When people put pressure on you from the outside it makes it difficult. But it makes it apparent how mainstream political voices want to quell any dissent.”
Dalbey did not have an immediate comment.
Jones has been publicly flirting with seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for more than a year, but the decision to pull him from the air comes less than a week after former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination.
Jones will maintain his radio show, Kentucky Sports Radio, but said his level of involvement might change if he decides to run for public office. LEX18 reported that Jones’ will appear on “Hey Kentucky!” Wednesday and then take a leave of absence.
At a Chamber of Commerce event last Friday, Jones was critical of McGrath’s campaign launch, saying it appeared she had let Democratic consultants “consult her to death.” He repeated his criticism on television the next evening when she was the lead story on his show.
“I’m going to grant you, this is a difficult thing for me to talk about since I’m one of the people involved, but nevertheless we have a job to do,” Jones said before letting his co-host of the day, Republican lobbyist Les Fugate, give his take on McGrath.
McGrath’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The Communications Act of 1934 says television and radio broadcast stations must give equal opportunities for candidates on newscasts, news interviews, news documentaries and spot-news coverage, but the act only applies if someone is a “legally qualified candidate.”
LEX18 would only face that requirement if it continued to air Jones’s show after he officially filed to run.
Experts in journalism ethics say the situation is somewhat vague, given that Jones’s show blurs the line between news and commentary. Newsrooms usually attempt to keep a firewall between politicians and the journalists who cover them, but Jones is not a traditional journalist.
“In the old days, this would not have happened because it would have been considered a conflict of interest and there were fewer commentary shows,” said Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.
Those days are gone. The rise of cable news networks has brought a steady increase in political commentary.
Jones’ television show, where he takes the top news items of the day and riffs on them for about two minutes each, blends news and comments in a way that is unique to the 21st century. His radio show, which broadcasts on dozens of stations in all corners of the state, was built as a traditional sports radio show, but it often veers into current events and politics.
Al Cross, a political columnist and journalism professor at the University of Kentucky, said he doesn’t think journalism ethics apply to Jones.
“Matt Jones is not a journalist, he’s an entertainer,” Cross said. “So I don’t hold him to journalism ethics. But I do think people ought to consider whether he is taking advantage of his platform.”
Jones said he considers himself a journalist who “acknowledges my biases.”
“If I were a news reporter, reporting on the McGrath campaign, I believe stepping aside would be valid,” Jones said. “This is a commentary show.”
Stepping aside while considering a campaign isn’t a new concept and is generally decided by management at the station. Before running for Congress, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, appeared on a political commentary show called “Hot Button” that appeared on WAVE-TV in Louisville. Yarmuth said when he acknowledged publicly he was considering a congressional bid, the station removed him from the air.
“I think the situation is very different with Matt because Matt owns the show,” Yarmuth said. “That’s his business.”
Yarmuth said he believes having a television and radio platform gives Jones an advantage over potential political opponents because his views can reach a wide audience, but Yarmuth added that he doesn’t think Jones will actually get in the race.
“Matt’s had a history of deliberating races and my guess is the odds are greater that he won’t do it than will do it,” Yarmuth said. “So I don’t think it should make any difference.”
Jones agreed the shows gave him somewhat of an advantage, but he argued the advantage was earned.
“In politics, it is somehow the case that it is OK if you buy all the ads to dominate the airwaves,” Jones said. “But I’ve worked my way onto the air and you want to take me off? That seems hypocritical.”
Cross said it’s easy to say Jones was taking unfair advantage of his nightly appearances on television, but added that we live in a world where information and entertainment are blended.
“You have to respect the work Matt has done to build his platform and he has every right to use it,” Cross said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s fair.”