united states project

Georgia governor vs. local media

May 6, 2015

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is proud of his office’s ability to bypass traditional media to get his message out via social media, so much so that he touted that fact at an unusual venue–the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism Centennial Gala last month.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution headlined its blog post about the event, “Nathan Deal to journalists: We don’t need you anymore.”

“There’s no group of editors or news directors who can prevent me from communicating directly with a mass audience,” Deal reportedly said.

True enough. But as Deal would soon be reminded, people who buy ink by the barrel can also still get their message out.

Dink NeSmith, president of Community Newspapers, Inc., a company with 67 newspapers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, found Deal’s words at the gala typical of a governor he called arrogant and dictatorial in a column he wrote after the speech (behind a paywall but reprinted by the AJC’s politics blog). NeSmith said the governor had inappropriately meddled in the work of the Georgia Board of Regents when NeSmith was chair. He also said that the governor’s staff had tried to get NeSmith to muzzle a columnist who was critical of Deal. And not long after, NeSmith noted, Deal decided not to reappoint him to the Board of Regents. (Nesmith the author of this post and NeSmith the publisher are not related, as far as they know.)

NeSmith wrote:

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As for Nathan Deal’s knife into the ribs of my profession, I respect and defend his First Amendment rights. He may be able to dictate propaganda through his own digital channels. But here’s when the governor and his staff can dictate what we put in our newspapers: When Hell freezes over!

Deal’s office responded with a statement, also printed in full by the AJC, in which Deal spokesman Brian Robinson insisted the governor thinks the media “play a critical role in our democracy.” Then he compared NeSmith to a petulant teenager:

This is a tantrum by another name, all the more unseemly because it so transparently stems from hurt feelings. When you don’t get asked to the prom, you can be cool about it and act like you have better things to do, or you can have a public meltdown on the school PA system and make wild accusations against the person who turned a blind eye to your inviting smiles. No decent person enjoys seeing the latter, particularly when it involves someone of dignity and respect.

Deal also lashed out at NeSmith at an Atlanta Press Club event, saying if NeSmith was “disappointed” in Deal’s Regents appointments, “he should be man enough to say that that’s his problem.”

Of Deal’s and Robinson’s responses to his column NeSmith told me, “I thought it was a political smokescreen to divert attention away from the issues. [Deal] said I wasn’t man enough, but if I wasn’t man enough, I wouldn’t have had the gumption to speak out.”

I called Deal’s press office to ask for a copy of Deal’s full Centennial speech. Robinson called me back to ask what I planned to do with it. And to complain about the coverage of the speech, which he said mischaracterized the overall message. Robinson told me that he is a Grady alum, and that he wrote the speech “as a love poem to the school.”

“I’m shocked at how defensive the AJC’s story and Dink’s story were,” he said. “These people are scared. What we said was not controversial. We said we’re a medium in our own right. There’s a big difference between that and the media is irrelevant.”

Robinson told me he’s “tired” of the stories about the speech, and, interestingly, that he considered just not responding to my request for a copy of the speech.

“I just want this story to die,” he said.

He did, in the end, agree to send it to me. And he’s right that the speech was mostly about changes in the journalism landscape, with some light-hearted ribbing for the media. The speech is linked here.

“Today, there’s no way I could go to a few outlets and get a message out to 10 million Georgians. Couldn’t come close. Local TV competes against hundreds of other channels, local radio hardly exists and newspapers are fighting to adapt to the new reality,” Deal said, according to the speech Robinson sent me.

Deal went on to tell the audience about his reach on social media, his 20,000 Twitter followers and his Facebook posts that are viewed by as many as 130,000 people.

And he praised the work Grady does training tomorrow’s communicators.

“Grady students will one day earn a living using some mass communication tool that we haven’t thought of yet,” he said.

On Friday, using an old mass communication tool, NeSmith outlined other times he has gone toe-to-toe with Georgia governors, noting that he’s still friends with each of them but he doesn’t expect that to be the case with Deal. The AJC excerpted NeSmith’s column here (scroll down) and described NeSmith as getting “the final word.”

“I’ve had my say, [Deal’s] had his,” NeSmith told me. “I’m not afraid to speak my opinion and I’m not afraid to take abuse. That’s how the First Amendment works, isn’t it?”

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.