Earlier this year, a small black box with a bright red light appeared on the wall next to a door leading to Gov. Matt Bevin’s communications office. Where reporters could once walk in and request an in-person statement from Bevin’s press team, the door now only opens for those with a key card.
Bevin has largely shut out the traditional media outlets who cover him, publicly vilifying the institutions and their individual reporters. Instead, Bevin — who often says he doesn’t get fair coverage from the Herald-Leader and other large news outlets — speaks almost exclusively through social media, conservative radio talk shows and smaller news outlets, carefully crafting and sculpting his message along the way.
“For those of you who want to truly see what is happening, follow along through social media,” Bevin said in February during his State of the Commonwealth Address. “With all due respect for what now passes for traditional media, it’s dying for a reason. It’s dying and becoming more and more tabloid-like for a reason.”
Instead of granting interviews to large newspapers and television stations, Bevin said he would take his message directly to voters, primarily using live videos on Facebook.
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Three months later, Bevin’s strategy appears effective. The most recent Morning Consult poll put his approval rating at 50 percent, up from 33 percent a year earlier.
But looming in the months ahead is perhaps the most difficult political battle Bevin will fight in his four years as governor: tax reform.
Republicans hold super majorities in the state House and Senate, but leaders have made it clear they have no interest in voting for anything resembling a tax increase unless Bevin is able to first successfully sell his plan to Kentucky voters.
This is the toughest thing a legislator or a governor can do, no matter what your years of service are, no matter what your political affiliation is.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester
“This is the toughest thing a legislator or a governor can do, no matter what your years of service are, no matter what your political affiliation is,” said Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.
The Republican governor’s task starts with convincing the public that the financial woes of Kentucky’s public pension systems are severe enough to warrant paying more in taxes.
It will be the biggest test to date of Bevin’s burgeoning political machine, which is fueled almost entirely by social media. His rocky relationship with the press corps, though, makes that job more difficult, particularly as traditional media raise questions about Bevin’s personal business dealings with appointees and state contractors.
The governor and members of his staff declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
“Thanks for the opportunity, but we are busy providing interviews for real news stories,” wrote Amanda Stamper, Bevin’s communications director, in an email. “The focus of our messaging is not on our internal operations but on all the great things the Bevin Administration is doing to move Kentucky forward.”
‘Who do they trust?’
The last governor to successfully change Kentucky’s tax code, Republican Ernie Fletcher, was able to pitch his reform as revenue neutral, but Bevin doesn’t have that luxury.
Lawmakers in Frankfort are confronted with one of the worst-funded pension systems in the nation, a problem that has been growing for more than a decade. Fixing it will require hundreds of millions of additional dollars each year.
“This is not going to be a revenue neutral tax plan,” Bevin said in his State of the Commonwealth Address. “It’s not. We can’t afford for it to be, that’s a straight-up fact. We cannot pay off eight times what we bring in if we simply reshuffle the deck.”
Traditionally, politicians have relied on the largest newspapers in the state to help disseminate their message, but in a political climate where President Donald Trump uses social media to declare the press an opposition party, Bevin’s approach has been simple: go around the news media and speak directly to voters.
The very fact that people choose to get information that hasn’t been filtered, just go ahead and take the information from folks that have an interest in spinning it one way or another, is already a testament to their lack of trust in other ways of getting information.
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky
“The very fact that people choose to get information that hasn’t been filtered, just go ahead and take the information from folks that have an interest in spinning it one way or another, is already a testament to their lack of trust in other ways of getting information,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “They don’t expect that they’ll get anything better … from the newspaper and the TV news.”
Only 46.5 percent of Kentuckians said they had a great deal or some trust in media in 2014, according to the 2016 Civic Health Index, a report put together by the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and other partners. That’s down 13.8 points from 2011.
“If they don’t trust the media, who do they trust?” Stamper asked University of Kentucky students during a panel discussion about public relations in April. “And if you have a message that you want to get out there, how do you get it out there in a way that people trust what’s being said?”
The Bevin administration’s answer has been to ramp up its social media presence, taking advantage of the rising number of people who use social media as a source of news.
Bevin has 93,971 followers on his “Matt Bevin” Facebook page and 84,083 followers on his “Governor Matt Bevin” Facebook page. He has 25,600 Twitter followers on his official Twitter page and 29,200 followers on his personal Twitter account.
In the last week of April, Bevin averaged nine posts a day on his official Twitter page and two posts a day on his official Facebook page.
“We have been able to engage our audience in a way that they feel like they, or they know that, they’re getting the information that they want, that there is transparency about that and that they trust that,” Stamper told the panel.
For example, Bevin has spoken live on Facebook three times since Friday, when he spent 20 minutes answering questions from his followers about foster care, adoption and the state’s drug addiction problem.
On Monday, he made a nearly three-minute video decrying the shooting death of a 7-year-old boy in Louisville. He promised a solution to the problem of rising gun violence and pledged to hold a news conference next week to announce the details.
A day later, he spent nearly six minutes attacking the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville, saying the newspapers “don’t actually seem to care about Kentucky” and accusing them of ignoring important news stories about the state’s problems and successes.
The Herald-Leader has a decades-long record of reporting and writing about issues critical to Kentucky’s future. We plan to do a lot more of that reporting and writing in the future. I’d invite the governor to read it.
Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak
“The Herald-Leader has a decades-long record of reporting and writing about issues critical to Kentucky’s future,” responded Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak. “We plan to do a lot more of that reporting and writing in the future. I’d invite the governor to read it.”
Joel Christopher, the Courier-Journal’s executive editor, said in a story published Tuesday night that Bevin’s plea to ignore the work of Kentucky’s top watchdog journalists should raise a red flag for voters.
“It’s like the circus magician telling you to watch his hands,” Christopher said.
Unlike a traditional news conference, when Bevin speaks on Facebook reporters don’t get to ask him questions he might not want to answer. Stamper told the panel at UK that “we really don’t find a ton of value in holding those.”
Bevin, in his Tuesday-evening Facebook video, said voters can make up their own minds about the information he presents them directly, without any filter or context that journalists might provide.
“There is nothing more transparent than live video, me talking straight to you,” Bevin said on Facebook.
Critics, though, say Bevin’s visibility isn’t the same as transparency.
“He should use social media,” said Al Cross, a Courier-Journal columnist and journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. “But he should also be answering questions from the traditional media because those are the people who know what questions to ask and he may not find those questions very comfortable, but he still needs to answer them.”
Though Bevin has access to a large social media following, experts are dubious about whether having a following is enough to sway public support in his favor. For example, his video chat about foster care and adoption was viewed 11,000 times in a state of more than 4 million people.
“I’m skeptical that really these videos are penetrating deeply enough into the society that you’re really getting past the normal politically informed people,” Voss said. “How many folks are seeing these videos who weren’t already the types that watch the evening news and or read the newspaper. How many of these folks aren’t already solidly Republican or solidly Democratic? I’m skeptical.”
To supplement his social media presence, Bevin routinely appears on conservative talk radio shows and has granted exclusive interviews to Kentucky Today, a news website run by the Kentucky Baptist Convention that aspires to be the state’s leading voice of conservative commentary. Bevin also routinely answers questions from small-town newspapers as he travels the state.
The newspapers that want to cover the great things that are happening, that’s where we are focusing.
Amanda Stamper, communications director for Gov. Matt Bevin
“The newspapers that want to cover the great things that are happening, that’s where we are focusing,” Stamper said at UK.
Sometimes, when Bevin is near the studio of WHAS-AM in Louisville, he’ll text talk show host Terry Meiners and ask to join his show. Those appearances are on top of the formal monthly appearances the governor makes on the show.
“I think Gov. Bevin feels a comfort level of talking on the radio because it’s an unedited format…” Meiners said. “I think he likes the open-ended opportunity to answer in long form.”
The only one-on-one interviews Bevin has granted to large media outlets in recent months were with The Associated Press and WKYT-TV. In both instances, the interviews were exclusively about his plans to overhaul the state’s adoption and foster care programs.
Bevin, in his Facebook video, dismissed other news outlets that have repeatedly been denied interviews as “whiners” who are not “serious journalists.”
Foolish questions or corruption?
While Bevin’s media strategy has begun to take shape, there’s one large object that has been weighing him down in recent weeks: his house.
For more than a month, reporters have been asking for details about the sale of the Anchorage home where Bevin’s family currently resides, receiving only scorn from the governor in response.
“They keep asking for all sorts of things that don’t matter,” Bevin said on Meiner’s show. “They ask about my taxes, they ask about my qualifications to be in government since I’ve never been in government, they ask about my relationship with this politician or that politician. The foolish people will always ask about foolish things. They just will. They’ll never stop. Because you can’t win an argument with an ignorant man and there are plenty of ignorant people who have the opportunity to present themselves as the questioners, the ones holding people to account.”
But where Bevin sees a nuisance, others see potential corruption. Attorney General Andy Beshear has sent a letter to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission asking whether he has the authority to investigate Bevin’s house deal.
Bevin won’t say if he owns the limited liability company that purchased the house in March, but it was sold at what appears to be a discounted price by a company called The Anchorage LLC, which is owned by Louisville businessman Neil Ramsey. Ramsey has donated to Bevin’s political campaigns and was appointed by Bevin to the board of the Kentucky Retirement Systems.
“They’ve been so mysterious about him living there,” said Richard Beliles, the chairman of Common Cause Kentucky, a liberal watchdog group. “That, if nothing else, is an appearance problem.”
And as the governor promises tax reform before the end of the year, the public has yet to see his personal tax returns and does not know what changes to the tax code might enrich Bevin, who has investments in several companies.
It’s important for governors to share their tax returns because they control a lot of public resources. There’s always a risk that any politician will channel resources to benefit themselves.
Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy
“It’s important for governors to share their tax returns because they control a lot of public resources,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the liberal-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “There’s always a risk that any politician will channel resources to benefit themselves.”
It’s possible that questions about his personal income will bog Bevin down as he tries to trumpet a “business friendly” tax reform, but Kentuckians who rely on Bevin’s Facebook page for their political news should expect more of the approach he’s been using for months.
“He’s been a very active campaigner, very aggressive, kept up a very busy schedule, and he’s done the same as governor,” said Tres Watson, the spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky. “And I wouldn’t expect any less out of him when it comes to selling the need and the plan that he comes up with for tax reform.”