“This Won’t Help Draw Eyeballs” Access Journalism in Georgia

It took a Congressional hearing and reporting led by national media outlets to finally resolve a Georgia election story from 2018.

What does that say about the relationships between state officials and the local press?

Last Monday, Georgia’s Attorney General announced the close of an investigation launched by then Secretary of State Brian Kemp into his political opponents two days before a close election.

Kemp had accused Democrats of trying to hack the state’s voter registration systems. No charges were filed and the Democratic party called the investigation “a sham from the start.”

One local opinion columnist and numerous posters on social media agreed. State Republicans were “weaponizing investigations” and practicing banana republic tactics.

Yet no one has critically examined the local media’s role in the saga and why national outlets and a Congressional memo had to lead the reporting.

My intention is not to scapegoat increasingly precarious local reporters, but to critique Access Journalism and the close relationships between media organizations and political insiders in Georgia.

It’s a status quo that undermines accountability and fuels increasing public mistrust of both politicians and the press.

And outright hostility towards elites.

In late Feb. the House Oversight Committee announced a hearing and released a memo dated Feb. 25th that included emails from Kemp and staff members about news articles in which his office was a subject.

The earliest story I’ve found about the emails was posted by The Guardian online at 11:24 a.m. on Feb. 26th, the day of the Committee hearing.

It lead with Kemp’s comments to aides about making a news article unreadable:

Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, told aides “good work” in 2017, after an Atlanta newspaper exposed problems in the way voters were removed from electoral rolls.

“Good work, this story is so complex folks will not make it all the way through it,” Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state, wrote in an email. Kemp was elected governor in 2018.

The 2017 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed the way local election officials were inaccurately removing people from the rolls.

David Dove, a Kemp aide, wrote back that he agreed not a lot of people would read the story.

“I think she wrote this to appease her folks on the left, but this won’t help draw eyeballs,” he wrote.

Not mentioned in The Guardian story, nor in any subsequent articles I’ve seen, is that the AJC reporter now works for the state within the Board of Regents Communications office.

“I think she wrote this to appease her folks on the left” implies Kemp’s aides viewed the AJC as an ally to state power, rather than a watchdog, and that its adversarial coverage was to appease liberal critics.

There are numerous examples of the AJC, and its Cox Media co-platforms WSB TV and radio, giving uncritical coverage of state officials.

Negative stories also appeared, but often only after first being reported by other news outlets. That was the case with stories surrounding Georgia’s election center at Kennesaw State University. And, as we’ll see, to the stories related to the Oversight Committee hearing.

Most early stories after the memo’s release also focused on the seeming delight Kemp and his aides took in getting away with suppressive actions.

The Georgia Recorder, a digital outlet that’s part of a new network of nonprofit statehouse reporting newsrooms, and other Georgia newspapers posted stories on Thursday 2/27. So did The NY Magazine Intelligencer.

The AJC’s own story was first posted Thursday morning. It does link to the House report and states “In one email, Kemp congratulated his campaign team for its efforts to blunt the impact” of the AJC article but leaves out the “appease her folks on the left” or any statements from Kemp’s office, which declined to comment entirely, or AJC editors about what that means.

It also doesn’t disclose that the original reporter now works for the state. Again, lest we blame reporters, it’s state officials and media executives that need to be pressed about such issues.

Is “exclusive” access being manipulated to boost the interests of insiders, marginalize outside critics, or “blunt the impact” of negative stories?

The 2/27 article alludes to the Democratic hack investigation, that CNN was in the process of following up on, and links to other AJC reporting, often by the current reporter, about voter registration cancellations, poll closures, etc.

That important and more aggressive coverage happened to follow vocal criticism from “folks on the left” and increased national interest in Georgia.

The state’s 2017 special election for Congressman Tom Price’s seat, Stacy Abrams’ 2018 run for Gov., and stories in national outlets about lawsuits and server wipes at the KSU election center.

The print edition of the AJC’s Kemp’s emails story appeared on page 22 of the Friday Metro Section. Later that day Kemp held a press conference about a new coronavirus task force. That news, along with a statesmanlike photo of Kemp, was on the front page of the Saturday edition.

Meanwhile, CNN was leading the follow up on the Democratic hack investigation. A story marked “Updated 9:09 AM ET, Fri February 28, 2020” states,

“The Georgia Bureau of Investigation told CNN that its investigation was completed and was forwarded to Republican state Attorney General Christopher Carr’s office in November. Carr’s office confirmed to CNN that it had received the investigation and declined to comment on the probe.”

The story mentions receiving a response from the Georgia Democratic Party as early as Monday (2/24).

“The last time (the state Democratic Party) had contact with the GBI, it assured us that (the party) was not under investigation. Given the absence of any follow-up, we have assumed the investigation was closed…”

Only the following Monday, and only after questioning by CNN, was the case actually closed. And again CNN was the first to report. “Updated 7:00 PM ET, Mon March 2, 2020.”

“CNN is reaching out to Kemp’s office and the secretary of state’s office for comment on the attorney general’s office’s findings.”

The news came on the eve of Super Tuesday when political attention was elsewhere.

The AJC first posted its story about the AG’s report Tuesday morning. It did have comments from Kemp’s spokesperson. (Did they prefer to comment to the AJC to blunt the impact?)

Despite CNN having the news the night before, the AJC online called their story “Breaking.”

Followers of #gapol on Twitter mostly tweeted out the AJC story, not CNN’s.

Thus the AJC, thanks to its legacy reach and insider access, gets to retain its status as “neutral” referee over Georgia politics even when following behind others.

Atlanta writer and comedian. Occasional citizen journalist. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40. No relation to Steve.

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