Activist media outlets can play by their own set of rules

It's easy to look at the 2012 presidential election and see a divided country: a group of red states competing with the blue states on the East and West coasts for an ever-shrinking number of undecided voters in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions.

It's easy to look at the 2012 presidential election and see a divided country: a group of red states competing with the blue states on the East and West coasts for an ever-shrinking number of undecided voters in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions.

Breaking down the national media industry is a little more complicated. Of course, there are the classic "D" and "R" outlets. The distinction between traditional and activist outlets is just as important. Case in point: one of the more unexpected moments of the 2012 presidential campaign was the "uncovering" of a 2007 speech by then-Sen. Barack Obama to a group of mostly black clergy. Obama expressed his disappointment in the federal government's handling of the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, speaking months before his win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses would turn that presidential campaign on its ear.

But what interested many conservative outlets is that Obama spoke in a style closer to that of a preacher than a president. Tucker Carlson ran the full version on his Daily Caller website, describing Obama's speaking style as "phony," while widely influential conservative aggregator the Drudge Report teased it by saying "The accent. The anger. The accusations." Fox News host Sean Hannity repeatedly played the video up as an election-changing bombshell.

It was anything but. The mainstream press shrugged its shoulders with headlines such as "Obama video: October surprise or old news?" and "Obama '07 video: Shock or schlock?" Of course, a day later, the election actually was turned upside down by Obama's listless performance in his first debate against Mitt Romney.

The story was a dud. But its rollout on the aforementioned sites illustrates how the right-wing press has grown in recent years and it no longer just comments on the stories of the day. Many sites in the conservative ecosystem are more aggressive than ever, showing an activist bent to rival any on the left.

That diversity of opinion presents opportunities for communicators, but also some red flags. The non-story about Obama shows how many trends from 2008 have grown up. Made public remarks you regret? They'll show up on YouTube. Expect an editor to spike a story because it's old news? Not always the case. Think all media outlets will play by the same set of rules? Good luck. It's not that simple anymore. l

Frank Washkuch is the news editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at frank.washkuch@prweek.com.

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