MEDIA CIVIL RIGHTS: Media Roundup - Civil rights debate stays hotin media well after 9 11

As Americans continue to weigh their safety against their civil rights, many outlets are still covering the issue - due largely to the PR efforts of civil liberties groups. David Ward reports

As Americans continue to weigh their safety against their civil rights, many outlets are still covering the issue - due largely to the PR efforts of civil liberties groups. David Ward reports

The September 11 attacks triggered one of the most significant national debates on civil rights and civil liberties in decades and, to their credit, the US media has risen to the occasion.

Indeed, there was a media feeding frenzy after the tragedies, as journalists scrambled to figure out the implications of a host of issues, ranging from racial profiling of Arab Americans at airports, to whether the government can hold material witnesses and others indefinitely without a hearing.

"We were getting 100 calls an hour from reporters, says Emily Whitfield, media relations director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"It was insane. While the interest has since slowed, Whitfield adds, "The nation still sees that the major issue of September 11, apart from the tragedies themselves, has been security versus civil liberties."

While obviously a story that involved major policy debates centered in and around Washington, media outlets across the country were able to pursue local angles, such as the backlash against certain ethnic groups, and surveying the community to determine what rights people were willing to give up in order to truly feel safe again.

Since few if any media outlets had in place any sort of civil rights or civil liberties beat last year, these issues ended up being covered by a wide variety of different reporters. But David Lerner of Riptide Communications, which represents the Center for Constitutional Rights and other advocacy groups, says, "Most of these issues are handled by legal beat reporters or Justice Department reporters. Some papers, like The New York Times, did assign someone to specific parts of the story, like Guantanamo."

Lerner says that for much of the time after September 11, civil rights and civil liberties advocates found themselves in a defensive posture in the press. "The dominant strain still tends to be patriotic support of the government, says Lerner, "but that's changing as the media gets back to its traditional role."

Civil liberties versus security

There is some debate whether the media's ongoing focus on the civil-liberties-versus-security debate has made it harder for PR pros to get coverage for traditional civil rights stories, such as the fight to end racial profiling of African Americans along the New Jersey Turnpike. Gwen McKinney, president of Washington, DC-based McKinney & Associates, whose clients include The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, insists those battles are still being fought.

"The media is still covering these issues, and it's very much part of the agenda for civil rights organizations, she says. "So September 11 has not pushed those issues off the table - it's just added another layer of concerns around Constitutional rights and civil liberties."

But there has been a flood of major stories over the past year, ranging from the economy to the war abroad to the anthrax scare to scandals within corporate America and the Catholic Church. Combined with an ad slump that forced cuts at many outlets, the deluge has put PR pros pitching traditional civil rights stories under tremendous pressure to get - and keep - the attention of journalists. "The challenge is that the news cycle is so tight, notes McKinney. "Two weeks from now, if you're not pitching something related to September 11, you're not going to get in."

Jubi Headley, director of communications for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, says a lot of the stories he's pitching, such as the fight gay and lesbian partners of September 11 victims have had to make to get death benefits, only partly fall in the realm of civil rights. "But in our mind, and I think to the NAACP and other groups as well, it's hard to separate economic concerns from the civil rights concerns, he says.

"An issue such as same-sex marriage is a basic civil rights concern, but it also carries with it economic benefits such as the right to file taxes jointly."

Headley says he pitches everyone from crime reporters to census reporters, religion writers, and state and local political journalists, depending on the story angle. "But in a lot of circumstances, we pitch the news editor and general news reporters and hope for the best, he says.

"We see our PR as having multiple purposes, Headley continues. "In addition to getting coverage for our issues, our goal is also to educate the media in the process on how they should be thinking about these issues, so that in the future, they pick up the phone and automatically think of us when certain issues come up."

Claiming space on opinion pages

One of the most interesting facets of civil rights and civil liberties journalism is that much of the coverage is appearing not so much in the news section, but rather on the editorial and opinion pages, as well as the ever increasing number of TV and radio "talking heads shows. Whitfield says ACLU leaders have spent the past year meeting with editorial boards from The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times to get their points across.

Editorial writing often carries with it an ideological slant, but Lerner notes that editorials and politics do make strange bedfellows, which can create some PR opportunities. "On the civil liberties issues, the libertarian press, which is part of the conservative press, has actually been pretty good, he says. "William Safire was one of the early outspoken critics of the military tribunals. On certain issues it doesn't help because you're not going to get coverage ... but on many issues, conservative anti-government types are as equally outraged as the left."

The most influential voices in civil rights and civil liberties print journalism are reporters such as the AP's Deborah Kong, columnists such as The New York Times' Bob Herbert and Safire, Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times, and syndicated writers Arianna Huffington and George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley.

On broadcast, the most influential journalists are the hosts themselves: Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, and George Will of ABC's This Week; Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Alan Colmes; Hardball host Chris Matthews; and syndicated radio's Rush Limbaugh.

Many PR pros note the trend in broadcast is toward programming with a distinct political slant, and McKinney, for one, says she steers clients away from shows she doesn't think will give them a fair chance to make their points.

"Those shows want racy debate, so Fox News Channel will take spokesmen from both sides, taking a Noam Chomsky and putting him up against a Jerry Falwell, adds Lerner.

For those who think that PR has little role in both the press debate and the ultimate outcome of these civil rights and civil liberties issues, Whitfield says, "We write press releases that are very reactive, but we can also be very proactive at times. And a great example of this is how we managed to kill Operation TIPS for the most part."


Newspapers The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Wall Street Journal; Chicago Tribune; USA Today; LA Times; Washington Times; Christian Science Monitor

Magazines Time; Newsweek; US News & World Report; New Republic; The New Yorker; The Nation; Harper's; Essence; The Progressive Magazine; American Prospect

Trade Magazines National Law Journal; New York Law Journal, and other regional legal journals

TV & Radio Fox News Channel; CNN; ABC World News Tonight; CBS Evening News; NBC Nightly News; MSNBC; Hardball; The O'Reilly Factor; NPR; Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative radio hosts


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