It was the most highly-anticipated, closely-watched gubernatorial debate in recent state memory. What had been termed by the national wags as “the nastiest race of 2015” exploded in full form last Wednesday, as the four Republican candidates traded bitter barbs, and the dogged moderator attempted to penetrate through the recriminations. Even a Christian Laettner name drop invoked the ire of the erstwhile Blue Devil himself, generating a new round of global media attention.
And it all transpired on what’s become the hottest, most coveted stage for political aspirants in the Bluegrass State.
Yep, Kentucky Sports Radio.
The reviews from the traditionally cynical state press corps were remarkably positive. Ronnie Ellis, one of Frankfort’s most veteran and respected reporters, tweeted: “Once again, Matt Jones @KySportsRadio conducts best political interviews (in this case “debate”) in a Kentucky political campaign.” Insider Louisville‘s Joe Sonka — an insurgent reporter/blogger whose caustic commentary rarely spares any pol or journalist — offered Jones the ultimate compliment: “@KySportsRadio is the Tim Russert of Kentucky politics.”
For the uninitiated (and the Millennial), the late, legendary Tim Russert was the longest-serving host of the Sunday morning institution, Meet the Press, renowned for his tough but fair interviewing style. In contrast to the sound-bite rhetoric that had come to dominate American politics in the late 20th century — and remains with us since — Russert asked probing, detailed questions, knocking politicos off of their talking points, trying to elicit some notion of the truth.
Matt Jones (who, in full disclosure, hired me to write this regular Sunday night column) has many miles to travel before he truly deserves the comparison. But over the past several months, Jones certainly has earned a mention.
Jones’ first splash came when he secured an audience last September with the notoriously interview-averse Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who was challenging U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell in his reelection bid. With Jones’ prodding, Grimes — one of the most disciplined, on-message candidates in recent political memory — opened up on a variety of controversial issues. For the first time, the young Secretary of State expressed a willingness to consider the decriminalization of medical marijuana, and she also showed support as well for marriage equality and gun show background checks, two highly unpopular stances in rural Kentucky.
But Grimes’ most significant accomplishment that day may have been in helping Jones land his white whale: an interview with Mitch McConnell. In the weeks after Grimes appeared in the KSR studio, Jones ramped up his daring the senior Senator to join his program. Finally, on October 12, McConnell unexpectedly called into the show. While Jones was caught off-guard, he conducted a deeply substantive interview, pressing McConnell on his positions on climate change, gay marriage and the impact of uprooting Obamacare. And for the first time that most political experts could remember, the usually staid and sturdy Senator seemed emotional and combative.
McConnell’s performance was widely panned by the mainstream press, and Jones was asked on the national media circuit to address the experience. Polls following the interview showed that Grimes had received a “KSR bump,” one independent survey even showing her with a lead for the first time in many weeks. Indeed, there was a new burst of energy in the Democratic base, prompting even this one moron to predict a Grimes victory.
In the end, nothing was going to prevent Mitch’s landslide. But McConnell’s appearance on KSR set a precedent for Kentucky politicos — no one was too big to fail to appear. And last week’s joint appearance by all four GOP gubernatorial contenders — even though Jones is an outspoken liberal Democrat — is proof positive.
Of course, it is not simply the fear of being called out as a chicken that motivates candidates to appear on KSR. Most obviously, it is an opportunity to reach the largest radio audience in the state, as well as a demographic voter pool that is quite different from those who traditionally watch debates and interviews on public television or local network affiliates. Further, withstanding Jones’ tough questioning — just like an appearance with Tim Russert — demonstrates both a candidate’s toughness and approachability.
But perhaps most significantly, pols appreciate the fact that Matt Jones is both fair and openly biased. For decades, the American press paradigm — in both sports and politics — revolves around the idea of “objective journalism”: that reporters would be scrupulously neutral when it comes to candidates, teams, public figures, ideology and issues. But as human nature dictates, even the best journalists are mortal; and sometimes it’s simply impossible to disabuse one’s self of personal, professional or partisan biases. Especially in an era of news industry financial struggle — where there is intense pressure to break a story quickly before Twitter, in the most salacious, click-generating manner — reporters are deeply incentivized to interject their opinions into their work, albeit often surreptitiously.
KSR was established to blow up this paradigm in the sports world. No one questions the team allegiance of Matt Jones or any of his contributors. As a result, readers can balance his sports coverage and opinions against his transparent biases.
The same is now true in Jones’ brief forays into politics. When the liberal Jones launches into a conservative pol, listeners can make up their minds with full information about the inclinations of each of the participants in the dialogue. There’s no spin, no gotcha trickery, no fake-friendliness, no off-the-record tomfoolery. Just an Ã¼ber-candid discussion about real issues that matter to real people.
It will be interesting to see if any presidential candidates find their way into Matt Jones’ studio in the coming months. Perhaps because Kentucky is solidly red, and perhaps because Rand Paul has a clear advantage in his home state — and certainly because national campaigns are risk-averse — we likely won’t see any top-tier candidates subject themselves to Jones’ scrutiny.
But if I’m a smart, self-confident longer shot looking to stand out in a crowded GOP primary field — a Ben Carson or a Carly Fiorina or a Ted Cruz — I’d strongly consider calling into KSR to have my voice heard.
And more importantly, if I’m a Kentucky pol looking to make a name for myself in state politics, I am going to beg, borrow or steal to find a slot on Jones’ program.
Kentucky politics: meet your future. With his no-holds-barred, fully-transparent approach, Matt Jones might just help lift the policy and political debate in our Commonwealth. And there’s nowhere to go but up.