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OPINION: ‘United we stand’ is more than words on a flag

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By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

Gov. Matt Bevin might want to take a closer look at the motto on the flag of the state he was elected to represent.

“United we stand. Divided we fall,” has graced our flag for almost a century.

Yet, on Wednesday, this newspaper and many others received a guest opinion piece by Blake Brickman, the governor’s chief of staff, accusing the state’s largest newspapers of working in tandem with Democrats to intentionally harm Kentucky’s progress.

It was just the latest salvo in a war the Governor’s Office has been waging against the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Courier-Journal and other media outlets that cover Frankfort and state government. Bevin’s administration has actively worked to circumvent reporters’ pesky questions about his actions by refusing to respond to specific journalists, attacking them on social media, trotting out the “fake news” accusation and taking his message “direct to the people” on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

This week, he tried to co-opt the many smaller, community newspapers in the state by sending Wednesday’s column and requesting to have it run.

It seems the journalistic community in Kentucky largely remains united, and will not aid a governor intent on undermining independent accountability reporting.

After we received the submission, I emailed every editor on the email list for the Kentucky Press Association and asked them if they had received the column and if they were running it,

Only one respondent said they would publish it. Every other said they would not.

“While I support many of Bevin’s initiatives (pro-life, adoption/foster care, etc.), this one is over the top,” one of them responded. “I am not a fan of the H-L or C-J editorial stances, but the attack on them is completely unwarranted. It is a gross mischaracterization of those papers and their function in civic democracy.”

Perhaps the governor’s communications team thought they would find a sympathetic ear among the community newspapers located in Kentucky’s 120 counties. Most of them cover rural counties that are politically conservative, and so are their readers.

What they might not realize, though, is that our reporting on local issues has angered powerful individuals in our communities. Many of us have been targeted in just the same way for nothing more than doing our jobs, asking tough questions and holding the powerful to account. It’s not about party affiliation or even political ideology. It’s what we do, and what our readers expect.

Or, maybe the Governor’s Office thought us journalists in small towns don’t know how to ask probing questions, that we are just a bunch of unsophisticated hacks who will take any manure they shovel our way.

When the governor comes to most of our towns, it is for an event, usually a good-news story like a ground-breaking, and our coverage focuses on the purpose of his visit. Rarely does he face tough questions at these events, because we are focused on the local impact.

But just because we don’t ask him tough questions doesn’t mean we don’t know how.

So, I put a question to the team that sent us the column. In it, Brickman touts a recent “press conference” the governor gave on May 27 criticizing the media that ran longer than 13 minutes and has been “viewed” 1.3 million times on Facebook.

But Facebook’s top-line “views” report is so inflated that it is understatement to call them misleading. All a “view” means is that the video appeared in someone’s feed. So I asked for more details, which are easy to gather and Facebook reports, such as how many people viewed it longer than 10 seconds; how many people viewed it with the sound off, the average time the video was watched and how many of those views were from people who actually clicked on it to watch. How many “viewers” were even in Kentucky?

I am still waiting for a reply. The governor’s staff was very cooperative when they thought I might just run the column they submitted. That changed once I started asking those questions.

That’s because they want to tout the numbers that are most favorable to them, and the 1.3 million “views” makes it look like their strategy of reaching out directly through social media is working. Maybe it is. We will know if they provide those analytics, and then people can have the whole story and judge for themselves. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe the numbers show that the videos and “press conferences” are really a waste of time because no one is really watching (or hearing, at least) what the governor has to say, and their only purpose is to give him an opportunity to publicly vent his frustrations and attack journalists — sometimes by name — for simply doing their job. Maybe that’s why they felt it necessary to also reach out to local community newspapers.

Nearly every one of Kentucky’s 120 counties has a local newspaper. We might not cover state politics on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean we are going to help sling the governor’s bull hockey at reporters covering his administration in Frankfort.

The majority of us stand united by our principles in journalism, which includes holding elected officials accountable to the public. We understand the motto on our state flag. The governor would be wise to take those words to heart, as well, before he tries to divide us again.