John Cheves, Herald-Leader

(Editor’s note: Curtis Morrison is a member of  Metro Dems, and a former volunteer organizer with the superpac Progress Kentucky.)

Fifty people at the Louisville Metro Democratic Club’s monthly meeting were stood up last night.

And the reason suggests a lot about the uneasy relationship between the media and grassroots political groups, as well as about the clout of a certain Republican senator.

John Cheves, a journalist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, was scheduled to address the club at its regular monthly meeting Wednesday night about  “The McConnell Machine,” Cheeves’ 2006 investigative series on Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell’s fundraising practices.

Cheves was also expected to share at the meeting his observations about the upcoming Kentucky’s 2014 United States Senate election, in which McConnell is seeking a sixth term.

But none of that happened.

Just what did happen isn’t completely clear. But somewhere along the line, the Herald-Leader got a call from McConnell’s office, after which Cheves was told his talk was off.

Cheves and Peter Baniak, the Herald-Leader’s editor and vice president, collectively exchanged multiple emails and phone calls with the club’s leadership including Lauren Ingram, the club’s president, as well as board members Bruce Maples and Shawn Reilly.

In the emails, Cheves and Baniak offered their regrets, along with attempts to explain how the event was cancelled due to paper’s high standards of journalistic integrity.

We reached out to Cheves for an explanation, and this is what he emailed us back:

“Peter Baniak, the editor of the newspaper, asked me to cancel my plans to speak to the Metro Dems last evening about past newspaper stories I’ve written. I complied. Peter is a good and thoughtful guy and can explain his reasoning. I’ve been a reporter for 20 years and routinely accept invitations to speak to groups about my newspaper stories or the practice of journalism in general – political groups, legal groups, business groups, nonprofit groups, academic groups.

“I don’t accept money, and it’s never an endorsement of the group in question. It just seems like a good learning opportunity for me to get out of the office, talk to different organizations about what we do and take their questions afterward. If my schedule is open, I typically say yes to whomever asks. But I understand that some people may perceive these speaking events in a less sanguine manner, and in matters of perception of fairness, it’s best that we err on the side of caution.”

Baniak sent Insider Louisville an email explaining the event was canceled because Cheeves didn’t have his prior permission to speak.

“John’s editors at the Herald-Leader were not made aware of this event until Wednesday afternoon,” Baniak stated.

The McConnell campaign had called the Herald-Leader to inquire whether the event was taking place, but Baniak claims he made the decision unilaterally to axe the event.

Here’s the exchange:

Insider Louisville: Didn’t Cheves have prior approval to attend the event?

Peter Baniak: No. John’s editors at the Herald-Leader were not made aware of this event until Wednesday afternoon.

IL: Were you asked by Mitch McConnell’s campaign to stop him from speaking?

Baniak: No, we were not. Sen. McConnell’s office called the Herald-Leader to inquire whether the event was taking place. They made no requests or demands of the Herald-Leader. The decision for John not to speak was ultimately mine, and I made it quickly once we were aware of this event. That decision was based on my judgment that it would be unwise for a reporter who often covers government and politics to speak at a meeting of a group affiliated with a specific party – either party – about an upcoming campaign just as that campaign is getting under way.

IL: Was it a factor that some members of Metro Dems are also volunteers with Progress Kentucky?

Baniak: No, it was not.

IL: I was there and the turnout was impressive. Do you have any words to share with the people who were disappointed?

Baniak: When I spoke with one of the organizers of the event Wednesday afternoon, I apologized for the timing and the inconvenience that it caused the group. The timing was unfortunate, and I regret that. If I had known about the event earlier, I would have made the same call.

We followed up on the Metro Democratic Club end.

Ingram wrote us:

“I did not speak directly to Mr. Cheves last night – his appearance had been organized by one of our board members, and I have not spoken to him directly. Our club had approached Mr. Cheves about speaking to our club a couple months ago. I am not sure exactly when he was confirmed, but I know he’s been on our schedule since at least January.”

It was Bruce Maples who had originally set up the speaking engagement a couple months ago, which the Metro Democratic Club promoted on Facebook. “I am not sure exactly when he was confirmed, but I know he’s been on our schedule since at least January,” Ingram wrote us.

Another Metro Democratic Club board member told us what he believes caused the cancellation. Jacob Conway, the club’s sergeant of arms, told us Progress Kentucky was promoting the engagement earlier on Wednesday with this tweet. 

On Monday, the superpac even retweeted the club’s tweet.  Conway believes the Herald-Leader was afraid to be associated with Progress Kentucky, an allegation that Baniak denies was a factor.

While the club is not affiliated with Progress Kentucky, or with the Jefferson County Democratic Party for that matter, several club board members are volunteers with both Progress Kentucky and the Jefferson County Democratic Party.

Louisville’s still a small town when it comes to politics, and lots of people wear more than one hat.

Tweets by Progress Kentucky have a recent history of making very big international news.

In February, tweets sent by a volunteer with the SuperPac on the group’s official twitter account referenced China, both in relation to the source of McConnell’s campaign contributions, McConnell’s fierce advocacy for free trade with Asia and regrettably, the ethnicity of his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

As a child, Chao emigrated from Taiwan with her parents and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Although the Progress Kentucky leadership apologized for those messages, by the time those apologies came, WFPL Phillip Bailey’s coverage of the debacle had already attracted worldwide attention, and placed Progress Kentucky squarely in McConnell’s crosshairs.

Conway told us he believes McConnell’s campaign is used to playing tough with an opponent, but since no high-profile candidates have filed, McConnell needs a target, and Progress Kentucky more or less volunteered.

“Everything was fine with Cheves coming to our event, then Progress Kentucky tweets about it and the Herald-Leader cancels,” Conway told us. “You don’t have to be Matlock to figure it out.”

In a twist of irony, in 2006 it was the Herald-Leader that ran the headline “Wedded to free trade in China.” In that story, Cheves and a team of Herald-Leader reporters documented how McConnell’s campaign received campaign contributions allegedly solicited by Chao and funneled from China through an Indonesian investment group.

Here is a sample:

When Sen. Mitch McConnell married Elaine Chao in 1993, he got more than a wife . He got a river of campaign donations from her family and friends in the Chinese-American business community. Some people think that might affect his views on China, the world’’s other superpower.

Major journalism publications noted the series, and it has been referred to by countless news outlets and websites.