Veteran critic Charles Kaiser is now writing a weekly column on the media for the Web site of pop culture magazine Radar.com. He spoke to PRWeek about Radar's reach, the media's ill-advised love affair with John McCain, and how PR professionals help.
How would you describe Radar's audience?
I think the goal is to get a younger, hipper version of the Vanity Fair audience. We're trying to be a combination of politics and pop culture for people under 30, primarily.
What interests you about media criticism? And how does the audience [Radar is targeting] react to media criticism?
There's a broad feeling that the media is inadequate, and my goal is to be specific about those inadequacies, in terms of things they fail to cover and the things that they cover very badly. There seems to be more than enough of both to fill up a column every week.
What are the most interesting themes or entities in the media?
The major theme of the media today is how the power of the mainstream press is being challenged by the Internet. There are now so many alternative voices to the New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, CNN, and so on. When the mainstream media makes big mistakes, there are many more people around willing and able to criticize. I hope the difference between my blog and many other blogs is that I try to do a lot more reporting than most other people. When I do criticize something, I try to contact the person who wrote the article I'm attacking rather than just spouting off my own opinions.
Is it a good time for media criticism? Do you see other people doing work you admire in the field?
Well, I admire Gabe Sherman's work… [at the New Republic]. He's the kind of person who always does a great deal of reporting to back up whatever it is he's saying. I'm sure there are five other people I'm forgetting.
How is the media covering the 2008 campaign?
It has the usual problems of focusing 92% of its attention on the horserace, and, at most, 8% of its attention on what the issues are. The current [media] love affair with John McCain is only possible if you ignore the fact that he has some of the most retrograde reprobate positions on every subject that you could possible imagine. The number of liberals who say they're intrigued by McCain fascinates me, because, as far as I'm concerned, his position is wrong on just about everything, except for campaign finance and immigration (at least his old position on immigration, where he was in favor of allowing people to become citizens – I'm not sure that's his position anymore).
Do you think that [the media liking McCain] has to do with the fact that he goes on The Daily Show, talks to the media, and calls his campaign “Straight Talk”?
Doing things like going on John Stewart helps with that part of the audience, but most of the perception of him as a straight shooter took place eight years ago, when he took on Jerry Falwell and the Republican establishment directly. The reality is – in 2008 – he's repudiated almost all of the positions he took in 2000. His big issue the last few days has been to attack Romney about what he might have said [to the effect of] needing a deadline to get out Iraq someday and somehow. This gives you an idea about how out of step he is with the majority of Americans.
Do you have any interaction with PR people?
Only to the extent of if I need a particular transcript, but I don't interact with PR people much more than that.
How would you best describe how you find stories to cover? Through voracious reading?
It's my own reading, and I have two fabulous interns who do a lot of additional reading. They're responsible for bringing lots of things to my attention. To some extent, my friends will point things out to me, saying, “You should really pay attention to this or that.”
What are your thoughts about the PR industry?
PR people are absolutely essential in terms of getting basic information. There are two things that PR people do. One is to try to spin reporters, which obviously I don't think is so useful. But the other thing they do is bring you basic information and pointing you to stories you might not have known, but that doesn't happen as much in what I'm doing as it would [for reporters] covering other types of beats.