Journalist Al Cross calls it like he sees it in “The Game” of politics, while teaching other writers how to cover local people and communities as director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Before he earned an international reputation as a journalist, Al Cross made a name for himself at an Albany baseball field known unofficially as Poverty Park.
With a raw dirt infield and bleachers made of unfinished lumber, Poverty Park was the hardscrabble home to Little League and softball teams like the Mighty Mites and the Dixie Doodles. Cross wasn’t a jock, but a bookish boy in glasses who fulfilled an essential function for people who couldn’t attend but still cared about what happened on the field.
He kept score.
Eleven years old when he started the job in 1965, Cross soon learned the significance of a scorekeeper’s work.
“After I ruled that several plays were errors, not hits, I got complaints from players—some of them older and a few of them intimidating,” Cross recalls. “One of the coaches said, ‘You just call them like you see them.’ That was some of the best advice I ever got.” Cross saw his scorekeeping duties evolve to include commenting on the games for WANY radio, writing up the results, and even naming the Player of the Week for the Clinton County News.
“It was good training for a political reporter,” he says.
The venue may have changed in 40-plus years, but in a fundamental way, Al Cross’ work has remained remarkably constant: observing, accounting, and relating what he sees—often an interaction between opposing sides. Maybe that’s why Cross still sometimes refers to politics as “The Game.”
Talk to Kentucky’s political journalists about Al Cross today and you hear terms like dean, expert, walking encyclopedia, but none of those terms applied to Cross in 1975. That’s when he met Al Smith, then a newspaper owner who’d just begun hosting a public affairs TV show on KET called Comment on Kentucky.
Smith invited Cross, then a journalism student at Western Kentucky University, to be a guest. “Cross was one of the smartest kids I ever met,” Smith says. “He was up on everything about Kentucky—its politics, its history, its land, its people. Had a real passion for the state. I decided to hire him right away. I figured I could get him while he worked cheap.”
Cross spent about two years working for Smith’s papers in Russellville and Leitchfield before taking a job with The Courier-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper.
In 1979, the CJ sent him to help cover the gubernatorial campaign—an assignment that got Cross hooked on politics, in part because of heady experiences like the day he accompanied John Y. Brown Jr. on a high-flying series of campaign stops.
“I was 25 years old. Always been interested in politics. And here I was, riding around in a helicopter with a candidate for governor. I’d never been in a helicopter before. This was it. This was The Game and I wanted to be part of it.”
The Courier-Journal Frankfort bureau chief Tom Loftus has known Cross since the early ’80s, initially as a rival. “I didn’t like Al that much at first. He had a swagger and he’s a bit of a know-it-all. But he won me over big-time. In Frankfort, he didn’t just cover elections; he was at every legislative committee meeting, countless Lincoln Day dinners, Jefferson-Jackson dinners. I’ve never met anybody who was more of a natural news and politics junkie than Al.”
Cross’ 25-year Courier-Journal tenure gave him the opportunity to write about five sitting U.S. presidents, seven Kentucky governors, 20 election cycles, and countless legislative rivalries, scandals, breakthroughs, and breakdowns. “Politics boils down to people,” Cross says. “And people are complex, contradictory, fascinating.”
He’s earned numerous awards, including a share of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the 1988 Carrollton bus crash. Cross was elected president of the national Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and he’s a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
He’s also earned respect from politicians he’s covered. Some, including former governor and U.S. Senator Wendell Ford, asked Cross to switch sides and become a press secretary. (Cross always declined.) In remarks prepared for an SPJ fund-raiser, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell poked fun at Cross, saying, “I am proud of my friends and even prouder of my enemies. Al Cross is one of the few people who have made both lists.” A framed copy of the speech hangs on the wall of Cross’ office with the inscription, “To Al Cross, with admiration and respect—Mitch McConnell.”
Teaching rural journalism
Cross left The Courier-Journal in 2004, though he soon returned in a part-time capacity, providing a twice-monthly political column. He’s worried about the dysfunctional state of American politics, about the economics of newspapers, and about the future of journalism with its seeming tilt toward ideology over information. “Who’s going to pay for uncovering the facts?” he asks.
His full-time job now is director of the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Cross’ mentor Al Smith is one of the institute’s founders and said he wanted Cross to lead the institute because, “The dream is to provide rural journalists and rural people with a resource for information, training, and advocacy—in Kentucky and beyond.”
Cross says, “It’s harder to be a good journalist in a small town than a big city because you’re constantly running into conflicts between your personal and professional lives.” Cross recently fielded a complaint from a former Albany Little League player who resented that Cross hadn’t named him Player of the Week—more than 40 years earlier. “I immediately told him I’d been mistaken,” Cross says with a laugh. “Journalism, especially rural journalism, requires political skills all its own.”
Brittany Emerson studied under Cross while earning a journalism degree from UK in 2005. “He taught us to find the person in every story—that’s something you always need to do in rural journalism. He would share stories about his experience reporting, and help us to learn by doing the work. Through his assignments, he gave students real-world experience of reporting on community issues in rural Kentucky.” Emerson is the general manager of the Casey County News and calls the institute “a great resource to help us see what’s going on in other communities like ours.”
Cross says the issues facing rural journalists transcend state and even national borders. Through UK’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications, Cross made two recent trips to the African nations of Zambia and Botswana to work with journalists there on passing a Freedom of Information Act.
Zambia, a mostly rural country, is drafting a new constitution, and there’s been some debate about how free the press there should be. On his visit, Cross addressed the subject in speeches, media interviews, and meetings with members of the Zambian parliament. The venue may have been new to Cross, but even in Zambia, he recognized The Game. “Politics is pretty much the same wherever you go. There was patronage. People wanted favors. I felt right at home,” he says.
In one 2010 speech published online in The Zambia Post, Cross talked about the importance of a free, active press to serve as a watchdog, even one that is inevitably imperfect.
“Sometimes watchdogs bark when nothing threatens, and that can be irritating.” But, he said, borrowing a line from an editor at The Washington Post, “a little extraneous barking is a small price to pay for having a watchdog.”
Forty years, two careers, and half a world away from Poverty Park, Al Cross is still closely watching the people around him, still tabulating their efforts, their failures, their hits, and their errors, and he’s still trying to call them like he sees them.
Alvin Miller Cross
HOMETOWN Albany, Kentucky
EDUCATION Clinton County High School, 1971. Western Kentucky University (Mass Communications), 1975
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS Reporter, bureau chief, political writer, and columnist for The Courier-Journal (1978-2004). Also worked for newspapers in Albany, Russellville, Leitchfield, and Monticello.
CURRENTLY Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky (2004-present). Writes a twice-monthly political column that appears in The Courier-Journal.
FAMILY Cross’ mother graduated from Berea College and worked in Oak Ridge as part of the Manhattan Project. Cross’ father, Perry, ran multiple businesses in Clinton County and served as a Republican state representative from 1948-49. Born in 1904, Perry was 49 when his son Alvin was born.
POLITICS was openly discussed at the Cross family dinner table, which influenced both Al and his brother David, who later became chairman of the Clinton County Republican Party. Cross describes his own politics this way: “I’m fiscally conservative and socially libertarian. I believe government is inherently inefficient and can be corrupt. Government can also do great things.” Cross says he’s cast votes on both the Republican and Democratic side in every election he can remember.
RURAL ROOTS Despite spending most of his career working for The Courier-Journal and the University of Kentucky, Cross has never lived in either Louisville or Lexington. “I’m a rural person at heart,” he says. Cross and his wife, Patti, have moved from Leitchfield to Somerset to Bardstown to their current home in Frankfort, where the couple, who have no children, live within walking distance of the Capitol.