MEDIA ROUNDUP: Media proliferation brings social issues to the masses

As cable news and talk radio keep growing, social issues - long covered by specialized outlets only - and the subject's once semi-anonymous experts have become key parts of mainstream discussion.

As cable news and talk radio keep growing, social issues - long covered by specialized outlets only - and the subject's once semi-anonymous experts have become key parts of mainstream discussion.

Not so long ago, the complex debates over divisive issues like welfare reform, foreign policy, and race relations took place in a rarefied, quasi-academic atmosphere far above the realm of mass media. Outlets like The Nation, Harper's, The Atlantic, The Weekly Standard, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic all had steady if unspectacular circulations and fairly low profiles, at least outside the major cities. But thanks to the proliferation of cable television news and talk radio, political and social commentary has gone mainstream in a big way. In the process, the once semi-anonymous editors and writers at these political commentary outlets have emerged as readily recognizable media personalities. "You look at The Nation with Katrina vanden Heuvel, she's all over the place," says Lisa Witter, GM and EVP of Fenton Communications. "There's a direct connection between what's written in these magazines and what gets on CNN, Fox, CNBC, and MSNBC." Not that such developments have changed the tone of political and social commentary that much. Most of the writing and opinion-making tends to have a distinct ideological bent. "By and large, most people read these publications to either gain reinforcement for their own outlook or get angry at the other guys," says Ron Nessen, White House press secretary during the Ford Administration and now VP of communications for The Brookings Institution. "I find it very hard to be surprised by columnists and writers these days." What is surprising, however, is the extent that traditional PR can influence these debates. Indeed, think tanks across the ideological spectrum all have fairly aggressive media outreach programs. "Our goal is to get something to reporters from Heritage every day," says Joe Dougherty, media relations manager with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It may be welfare one day, missile defense the next, but 98% of the time we meet that goal." Working across ideological lines Dougherty concedes that sometimes their outreach falls on deaf ears. "Generally the conservative publications are more open to the work we do, while the more left-leaning publications aren't," he says. "But that doesn't mean we don't work with them. We have a pretty good working relationship with the likes of Mother Jones and The Nation, even though they disagree with us pretty strongly on some issues. If we only preach to the choir, we're not going to get very far." David Lerner, president of Riptide Communications, a firm that represents a lot of progressive clients and causes, agrees that it's possible, though not easy, to pitch across ideological lines. "You need something really amazing," he says. "But there are stories, such as the erosion of civil liberties under [US Attorney General John] Ashcroft, that you can pitch to libertarian and some conservative outlets." Social and political commentary tends to be a journalism category that defies many traditional PR tools, such as press releases. Witter says, "My experience with those magazines is based more on one-to-one relationships, because they're often working on long lead times. As such, the stories are longer and more in depth." Dougherty adds that an oft-used PR strategy at Heritage is to invite key reporters to sit down with the foundation's experts. "It's on the record, but it's very informal - half of it is talk [about policy], half is on how the Redskins are doing," he says. "It establishes the rapport, and hopefully the reporter will soon be communicating directly, and we on the media relations staff can step out of the loop a bit." But Monika Bauerlein, senior editor with Mother Jones, says that does not mean journalists aren't willing to listen to a traditional pitch. "I can't think of a case where we've actually done a story based on an idea actually suggested by a PR person," she says. "But we appreciate thoughtful, appropriate ideas that may get us thinking about something that will ultimately blossom into a story. We appreciate being advised of resources." Reliance on freelancers A main reason for their appreciation of PR pitches is that many of these media outlets depend on freelancers for much of their content. Mother Jones, for example, has no staff writers, and Bauerlein estimates that at least half of the stories that end up in the publication originate from freelancers. "The writers are the key here," says Lerner, who recommends that media outreach focus on writers. "Especially if it's a longer-term project, more often than not it's writers at places like Harper's or The Nation who turn out their own ideas." For a long time, there was a perception that social and political commentary was being produced and read by policy wonks and intelligentsia, and that the goal was not to influence the masses but public policy. In some way, those objectives remain. "Our mission is to work with the people on Capitol Hill that actually write the legislation," says Dougherty. "Those are the people we're trying to educate, so we target the media that congressmen, senators, and their staffs are reading and watching." But thanks to the explosion of syndicated talk radio and 24-hour TV news channels, even the most arcane social and political issues are being debated and dissected in front of audiences of tens of millions. Think tanks such as Brookings and Heritage are doing all they can to take advantage of these new opportunities. Heritage has a very extensive talk radio program and is on pace for about 2,000 radio interviews this year, while Brookings has an in-house TV and radio studio, complete with fiberoptic lines, so that its scholars can leave their offices and be on the air in minutes. But Nessen says Brookings scholars don't always fit in with what many broadcast outlets look for. "One of the things Brookings tries to do is not take part in the Crossfire kind of programs," he says. "We strive to be non-partisan and independent, and sometimes that is a disadvantage. I think TV bookers like to pick someone from one extreme and someone from the other and get them to argue with each other." But if some bemoan the decline of objective, third-party social and political commentary, Mother Jones' Bauerlein suggests that misses the point of why this journalistic category exists in the first place. "The middle ground is by definition something that people must come to by weighing different arguments," she says. "That's why we have brains - to put them to use." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; The Christian Science Monitor; Los Angeles Times; Washington Times Magazines The Nation; Harper's; The Atlantic; New Republic; The Weekly Standard; Commentary; Reason; Foreign Policy; Free Inquiry; Partisan Review; National Review TV & Radio CNBC; CNN; MSNBC; PBS; This Week; Meet the Press; National Public Radio; Rush Limbaugh and other syndicated radio hosts Internet Salon.com

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