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The first time I heard this story, it was about two months after Gov. Bill Lee had been sworn into office. I heard it from an impeccable source — a Republican very much in the know, someone who voted for Lee and supports his politics. Since then, I have heard the same story from several other GOP sources, all of whom I trust. The story, such as it is, goes like this:
Certain members of Lee’s staff are telling him he’s the next Ronald Reagan. And Lee is buying it.
That’s it. That’s the story. That’s the punchline, except it’s not a joke.
Six weeks ago, I sent out a newsletter in which I noted that Gov. Bill Lee’s communications staff had refused to update the office’s official press list to add my current email address. They also did not return my calls or emails about the matter.
Later that week, on Sept. 27, I drove an hour north to Athens for a press availability, or “avail,” with Lee. I asked the governor to comment on his staff refusing to add me to the media list.
“I’m not familiar with that at all. I don’t know anything about that, so I can’t comment on that,” Lee responded.
After the other reporters moved away, I asked Lee’s communications director Chris Walker if he would comment. The conversation lasted about a minute, in total. Here’s the transcript:
Me: Can you comment, Chris?
Chris Walker: No. We reserve it for journalists, and everything’s online. Thanks
Me: So you’re saying that I’m not a journalist? Is that what you’re saying, Chris?
Walker: Cari, I’ve answered your question. Thank you. It’s good to see you.
Me: I’m a journalist. I’m stringing for the New York Times —
Walker: It’s good to see you. It’s good to see you. Thank you.
Me: I’m stringing for the Washington Post —
Walker: Ok. Good. I look forward to reading that.
Me: And you’re saying I’m not a journalist? I have a thousand subscribers —
Walker: I look forward to reading it, Cari, thank you. It’s good to see you.
[I walk away, then walk back over 30 seconds later.]
Me: Hey Chris, is the Tennessee Star on the press list?
Walker: Cari, enough.
Me: I, I —
Me: I can make a records request.
Walker: You live in Georgia.
Me: Will a records request submitted by a Tennessee resident show that the Star is on the press list?
Walker: Cari, everything’s online. Everything’s on the website.
Me: No, it’s not.
Walker: Yes it is. Go look at it. All the events are on the website. Everything’s on the website. You can look on the website.
[Walker walks away, as do I in the opposite direction.]
Well, I— a person who currently lives two whole blocks from the Tennessee state line and spends all her money in Tennessee but does not count as a state resident for records purposes — found someone to make that records request. And what I discovered is that the governor’s (and the first lady’s) emailed “media” lists get sent to hundreds of people who aren’t employed by media outlets. Although Tennessee Star staff aren’t on the list, about two dozen lobbyists are, along with a handful of Republican operatives and fundraisers. The emails also go out to some employees of public schools, electric companies and local chambers of commerce. Reserved for journalists it is not.
Before I break down some of the notable names on the list, I want to be clear that I have no problem with any of them getting the weekly email of the governor’s media schedule. Most of Lee’s public events are listed on the state website’s calendar, but unlike the email, the online calendar does not regularly include details of whether there will be a media avail at an event. Lee has notoriously shied away from avails in favor of “photo only” events, which is why it is important for reporters to know if they will have a chance to question the governor, especially when travel is involved. Also, sometimes times and locations of events change at the last minute. If you’re on the list, you get an email about it. If you are stuck checking the calendar, you might easily miss the changes.
This is why I would like to receive the governor’s schedule in my inbox, like hundreds of other reporters, editors and producers across the state and country. (Yes, reporters from Politico, The Hill, CNN, ABC, Reuters and the New York Times are on the list, despite having no bureau reporters in Tennessee.) My Substack newsletter — this news outlet — has over 1,000 subscribers, with more signing up every month. My work was even recently featured in a lovely profile by Harvard’s Nieman Lab, the news outlet of the prestigious Nieman Foundation. The only people who seem to seem to not consider what I do “journalism” are Lee’s communications staff.
But since hundreds of people on the governor’s “media” list are not journalists, it shouldn’t even matter what the staff thinks as to the merits of my journalism. Because they are sending out Lee’s schedule every week to journalists who have left the state, like former Nashville reporters Alanna Autler and Dave Boucher, who moved to Dallas in 2018. They are sending it to three Metro Pulse email addresses (including my own), even though Knoxville’s beloved alt-weekly was shut down five years ago. (Please, someone at the KNS ask why these email addresses still function when the website doesn’t.) They are sending it to a number of people who are dead but who apparently still have functioning email addresses. They’re sending it to state employees who left their jobs months ago and to (presumably defunct) email addresses for elected officials who lost office a full year ago. (I’m assuming Beth Harwell can’t still check her state email account.)
Oh, and they’re still sending it to my old Nashville Scene email address too. Yes, that’s right — I am still getting the governor’s press list at two different email addresses, neither of which I can access, but the governor’s staff refuses to change that address to my Gmail account. Petty and nonsensical, but that’s Tennessee governance for you.
So who is alive, at the same job, and currently getting the governor’s schedule? Over 1,500 people, at minimum. There are 1,738 email addresses on the governor’s media list, per the open records provided to me last week, and there are 766 names on the first lady’s list. The latter seems to be copied wholesale from a couple of silos of the governor’s list, as it includes my old Scene address and legislators no longer in office like Harwell. The 1,738 number on the former — assuming I counted the small print in the 46-page PDF correctly — includes several names twice, along with the former employees of whatever outlets and state offices, so the actual number of people receiving the emails is probably 1,600-ish.
The media list does go to journalists — mostly political reporters across the state, but it also goes to editors and news producers and a handful of independent local bloggers. The records I received have the list divided into silos (some reporters appear on more than one), which logistically makes sense. If the governor has an event in Knoxville and the venue has specific camera protocol, a smart communications person would want to email only Knoxville media and not 1,600 other people about that. And if timing changes on a presser at the Capitol, no reporter in Memphis cares, just the Capitol Hill crew.
That said, it appears Lee’s staff doesn’t seem to understand the silos former Gov. Bill Haslam’s communications staff set up. They have added the Commercial Appeal’s columnist Ryan Poe to the Nashville silo, along with several state employees, editors at local papers in Lawrence County and Greenville, a sales representative for VIP Jackson (a magazine that covers social events), and Tim Weeks of TWA Pictures, a Nashville-based television production company. The silos for the members of the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Senate have not been altered since January 2018, although a few more recently elected officials have been added elsewhere on the list. And the silo going to legislative and capitol staff has added new names but hasn’t deleted any of the people who have left or died since Lee took office, including the disgraced Cade Cothren or the very nice and helpful Glenn Barber, who passed away last summer.
The majority of the people who are not media or state employees receiving the weekly email are in one silo set up by Haslam’s staff. These two pages include lobbyists like:
Gif Thornton (one of the state’s most prominent lobbyists; also represents the pro-voucher, pro-charter TennesseeCAN);
Elizabeth Millsaps (Axon Enterprises — a.k.a., Taser — and do read this story);
Alex Lewis (assorted electric utility interests and Volkswagen; left lobbying this past week to work at the state Department of Commerce and Insurance);
Ted Boyatt (left TennesseeCAN for Tennessee Chamber; reputed to be the third party on the Cothren/Glen Casada texts; also this guy);
Trammel Hoehn (assorted insurance interests along with Volkswagen, Teach for America and Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis);
Former Tennessee Republican Party Executive director Brent Leatherwood (now at the Southern Baptist Convention’s lobbing arm, ERLC); and
People employed by (and most, but not all, who are also lobbying for) the Tennessee Hospital Association, Methodist Le Bonheur Hospital, the Hospital Alliance of Tennessee, the University of Tennessee, Gatlinburg CVB, the Nashville Chamber, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, Eastman Chemical, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, AARP and the Catholic Diocese of Nashville.
There are also White House staff members; Bob Keast, the owner of the Birdsong Resort, Marina and Family Lakeside RV Campground in Camden; and two employees of Haslam’s family business, Pilot Flying J.
Since Lee took office, his staff hasn’t added quite as many lobbyists to the list — possibly because they’re already on the list, and possibly because Lee hasn’t been in office a full year yet. But his staff did add the most well known Republican fundraiser in the state, Kim Kaegi, along with her staffer Anne Locke, to the media list in July 2019. They also added lobbyists:
Robert Clark (St. Jude Hospital);
Jim Layman (Insurors of Tennessee);
Micah Johnson (former communications director of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker whose company represents Volkswagen, although she’s not yet registered in the state as a lobbyist for the manufacturer);
Holly McDaniel (TennesseeCAN and BlueCrossBlueShield).
Lee’s staff has also added Kingsport Chamber staff; the communications director of pro-charter Tennesseans for Student Success; an employee of the law firm Greenberg Traurig, which just hired former state insurance commissioner Julie Mix McPeak; and freelance journalist Kathleen Carlson, who is also on the Davidson County Democratic Party’s executive committee. Finally, in very curious timing, the office added Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Marlon King to the list about two weeks after the Freedom From Religion Foundation lambasted the district for allowing its schools’ social media accounts to proselytize religion.
The media list also includes over a dozen names (added both by Haslam and Lee staff) of Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee members or county party chairs (or former chairs). Partisan pundits Steve Gill and Scottie Nell Hughes are both on the list, but at email addresses affiliated with Gill’s defunct radio show. Gill told me he does not currently receive the emailed schedule, but other conservative talk radio hosts (and/or their producers) across Tennessee are getting it every week.
In my records request, I asked for “any written policy describing how the governor’s communications staff determines who is or is not ‘press’ ” in regards to being added to the listserv. The records I received in response to that were exactly zero.
If Lee really does have delusions of Reagan this early in his tenure — and again, I was hearing this before the legislative session ended last spring, way before the voucher bill even passed — he’s not going to be dumb enough to tell any reporter that. But while I have laughed myself silly a couple of times when telling people about this, it’s something I’m finding more and more disturbing as the weeks go by and the governor’s communications staff repeatedly refuses to do their jobs. Despite Walker’s $144,000 taxpayer-funded annual salary. Despite Laine Arnold’s $90,000 taxpayer-funded annual salary.
Communications staff for any elected official, even part-time ones like state legislative leaders, are paid to answer questions from reporters. Sometimes they are going to dodge those questions, and sometimes they simply won’t reply quickly enough because something else has taken priority that afternoon. But communications staff paid by the state are not being paid to refuse to return calls or texts or emails for months upon months simply because they don’t personally like someone. And the governor’s staff certainly does not get to determine who is and who is not a journalist — much less when an email list they say is reserved for journalists is going to hundreds of people who wouldn’t know what a nut graf was if it kicked them in the, well, you know.
I emailed Walker about this story, both to his state and his personal accounts. I texted him the contents of the email. I called the two cell phone numbers I have for him. He did not reply. In fact, he has not replied to anything I’ve sent him since February. Which is hardly the Reagan-esque way to get the press on your side writing softball stories — although I assume since they know I won’t ever do that, they simply don’t care.
But you, whatever your political affiliation, should care. If you live in Tennessee, if you shop in Tennessee, if you go out to restaurants or stay in hotels in Tennessee, your tax dollars (and mine) are paying for two people to not do their jobs in umpteen different ways. (Not to mention the whole breaking the law thing.)
I know that several people have emailed Walker and Arnold on my behalf, not that it has done any good so far. But one kind soul wrote an email that made me cry, which Nieman Lab also quoted at the end of their story:
“Our politics need to be driven by a local dialogue, and that only occurs when we have local journalists that can make a living off of covering local issues,” the email stated. “That’s why the exclusion of Cari is so troubling to me. In the face of the nationalization of politics and the slow death of local newspapers, the Governor’s office is going out of its way to exclude those trying to power a new business model.”
If any of you can actually get an answer as to why freelancers active in party politics and lobbyists for large corporations and a West Tennessee school superintendent and a handful of dead people and my two old email addresses that I can’t access deserve to get the governor’s media list but I don’t, please do let me know. I feel sure it’s what Reagan would want too.
And should you be so inclined to further parse the 46 pages of Bill and Maria Lee’s media list recipients, I have uploaded the unredacted pdf for your viewing pleasure.
If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)
I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting until subscriptions start in January. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.