Letter to Kentucky students, journalists, politicians: wake up



A tale of two young voters, it was the left of times, it was the right of times, depending on whether you’re a future journalist or a current Honors student.

The historic Kentucky election of 2015 has some people shaking their heads and others sorting their quantitative and qualitative research results. Who was the biggest loser on election night: Auditor Adam Edelen, the Bluegrass Poll or traditional-elite journalism?

Yes, Attorney General Jack Conway squandered a great political opportunity with a campaign strategy built on low visibility and low voter turnout. But compare that with the opportunity Kentucky politics squandered by boxing out independent candidate Drew Curtis in a campaign built on social media without a national Obama Effect (Kentucky is different) to stir up a sleeping giant: young voters.

Last October on KET, in the documentary “Ballot Bomb: Exploring the Young Voter Explosion,”  Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher at Tufts University for CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), said about 670,000 young people: “There is no doubt that young folks can swing elections … They are 21 percent of the potential electorate in the state.” She added that the surge in young voter registration in Kentucky occurred in 2004 before the Obama Effect.

The documentary, co-hosted by my 19-year-old son, Austin, asked, “Will young voters flex their political muscles or will they be found ‘Bowling Alone?’” We know now that they bombed out, and that’s likely the case again in the governor’s race. But who’s to blame: the young voters, the candidates, the news media, or all three?

Each fall semester over the years, my “Citizen Kentucky: Journalism and Democracy” class at UK has combined teaching, research and public service, particularly by organizing an annual Constitution Day celebration around an upcoming election.

Constitution Day at UK ‘15 featured Allison Ball, a Prestonsburg bankruptcy attorney who earned the most votes in Tuesday’s election, 60,000 more than Matt Bevin, for the position of state treasurer that some think shouldn’t even exist.

Now that’s a candidate for you.

When Ball arrived for Constitution Day, I told her I thought she gave the best speech at Fancy Farm, the official start of the political season in Kentucky. When State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the Republican candidate for attorney general who nearly knocked off the governor’s son, objected with a friendly “What about me?” I stuck to my guns.

Jenean Hampton, who gave the first Fancy Farm speech in 135 years by an African-American woman, not only spoke at Constitution Day, she stayed until the very end, even after the middle school singers in their blue uniforms returned to Christ the King School and my Honors students in their bright yellow classmate-designed T-shirts left for their next classes.

That’s another candidate for you. Can’t tell you how many times I read or heard that Jenean lost a debate with Conway’s running mate, Sannie Overly, for lieutenant governor.

Get used to this: debate performances like political polls are in the eyes of the beholder, not facts. Walter Lippmann in his 1922 classic “Public Opinion” talked about “the tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts.” In Kentucky’s Election 2015, facts got mugged by a Gang of Angry Voters.

In an Election Eve survey in Journalism 101, young voters, mostly 18 to 19 years old, revealed that they would have elected Jack Conway, showing how they lean left compared with their rock-ribbed Republican Honors student counterparts; that Drew Curtis received as many votes as Gov.-elect Matt Bevin; and that the key factor in their votes had more to do with the party affiliation of their mother than any single campaign issue.

“My mother decided my vote when I was in the womb,” said Karlil Wilson, 18, a broadcast journalism major from Columbus, Ohio. Tre Lyerly, 19, a journalism major from Raleigh, N.C., added: “Donkeys don’t raise elephants.”

An in-depth focus group of young voters, my Honors students who have been filing journal entries on their “coming to public judgment” since Aug. 27, delivered as many votes for Curtis as Bevin and found their “key determinant” split between party affiliation (GOP/them and their mothers) and personal contact (Curtis coming to class).

“Drew Curtis’ campaign should have shouted and screamed to young voters,” said Morgan Lloyd, 19, a journalism major from Toronto, Canada. Added Andrew Myers, 19, a journalism major from Lexington: “Perhaps if Drew Curtis did a ‘Whip/Nae Nae’ or played ‘Hotline Bling’ in his campaign commercials, maybe he would have attracted more young voters.”

In a content analysis of newspaper front-page headlines in the month leading up to the Nov. 3 election, the Honors students found only traditional-elite framing: trumped-up conflict and obsession with the horse race, as in who’s ahead in the polls and who’s leading in fund-raising. An analysis of a WUKY-FM interview with a political pundit on election eve revealed that the word “polls” beat the word “issues” in a 10-to-1 landslide.

Imagine these headlines for the presidential election:

“Trump and Clinton battle over possible solutions to high cost of higher education and college loan debt,”“GOP candidates offer success stories on how they created high-paying jobs for the highly educated” and “Democrats offer answer to equal pay for equal work: Dads, teach your daughters to negotiate.”

Step one for Journalists Anonymous: Stop denying an addiction to conflict, public opinion polls and negativity. Imagine if citizens no longer complained about liberal bias in the news media because of journalists’ bias toward finding solutions rather than relentlessly pounding problems.

“If JOU 101 was a baseball team, most of the class would hit into left field,” Myers said. With a nod to my old Chicago Tribune, James Parr, 18, a journalism major from Lexington, added, “If JOU 101 printed the headlines for the Herald-Leader, Matt Bevin might have been holding up a ‘Conway Defeats Bevin’ paper on Tuesday night.”

The Citizen Kentucky Project, designed to engage young people in civic life, serves as a marriage counselor for our one, big dysfunctional family: the people, the press and the candidates. We can all do better.

Let’s not squander the lessons from Matt Bevin’s dickens of a wakeup call. As Kentucky now embarks on the run toward a March GOP caucus in the presidential election campaign, the future is in our hands. Whether we are voters, journalists or candidates, we will be remembered for the age of wisdom or the age of foolishness.

Buck Ryan is director of the Citizen Kentucky Project of UK’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.

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