Can Conservatives Change the Media?

Report Political Process

Can Conservatives Change the Media?

September 1, 1990 14 min read Download Report
M. Stanton
F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

(Archived document, may contain errors)

Can Conservatives Change the Media?

By M. Stanton Evans The question of the media has troubled conservatives and others for a long time. I think the reason is that the media are crucial to the proper functioning of our system. We depend upon the media for information on which we mak e decisions about politicians and about a lot of other things in our society, and if the information provided by the media is inaccurate then the system tends to malfunction. Information is the oxygen of the body politic; if you don't get good information - steady and accurate information - then the system isn't going to work. The malfunctioning of the information system is apparent to many of us, even those who do not have particular ideological interests. It is simply a fact that there are dis- tortions i n the system which prevent information from being conveyed in an accurate fashion. There is an old joke that probably some of you have heard, about the different ways in which different media treat stories. A report received by the CIA indicated that a me t eor was going to strike the earth and destroy it in the next twenty-four hours. Being a secret piece of CIA information, this was of course immediately leaked to the media, and was played in different ways. The Wall Street Journal had a headline that said "World to End Tomorrow: Market Expected to drop 1,000 points." 77ze New York 7"unes had a head that said "World to End Tomorrow: Details on Page A18." USA Today said "World To End Tomorrow: How We Really Feel About It." And the Washington Post had a head w hich said "World To End Tomorrow: Women and Minorities to Suffer Most." These are rather ac- curate approximations of the way that different media view the same stories. Look at the stories on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and they are very much in this ve i n: 7he Wall Street Journal has emphasized the impact on the economy while The Washington Post is playing up the politics of it. That kind of treatment is inherent in the fact that human beings tend to see events through the lenses of their own ideologies a nd interests, and this leads to distortions of communication. Conservatives tend to think that the problem is bias. There is a lot of bias in the media, which has been documented rather well by a number of people. But there are other problems also. There i s a problem of superficiality - of hopping around on the surface of events without really looking beneath the surface to find out what is causing the headlines to change as they do. Ignorance and Incompetence. And there is also a problem of incompetence: n ever under- estimate that. There are many people in the media who are dealing with subjects of world- shaking significance who don't know very much about the topics they are reporting. One of our main concerns at our little enterprise at the National Jour n alism Center is, for instance, economics. If you look at the domestic policy news and indeed the foreign policy news in recent years, a lot of it is economic in character. The budget and taxes and inflation and un- employment and the stock market and hous ing and homelessness; transportation, energy and farm policy - it's all Econ. If you don't understand economics, therefore, you are not going to be very well equipped to cover those issues.

M. Stanton Evans in Chairman of the National Journalism Center, Was hington, D.C. He spoke at the Heritage Foundation on August 7, 1990, in the Resource Bank lecture series featuring leaders of conservative public policy organizations. ISSN 0272-1155. 01990 by The Heritage Foundation.

This is also true in foreign policy . If you look at the Iraq-Kuwait story or the story of African famine, the debt problems of the less developed countries or the upheaval in East- ern Europe, these are all economic stories. If the reporters assigned to cover them do not understand very mu c h about economics, then they are not going to understand what they are covering, and they're not going to write very accurate stories. Rock Remedies. One of the things that always strikes me about coverage of these events is how it combines both superfici a lity and incompetence in one package. Think about the African famine stories that we have seen. We say, "They're starving to death over in Africa, they don't have enough food to eat in Ethiopia and other places, so what would be a good thing to do about t h at? I know, let's have a rock concert!" So we have a rock concert to raise people's consciousness, and that is what is reported in the media. We then come to our own domestic economic situation where we have a problem with farm surpluses. We have overprod u ction of farm produce in this country, and as a result there are problems with our agricultural economy of a very different character. People look at that and ask themselves what to do about it. And someone says, "I know, we should have a rock concert! Le t 's have a rock concert about that." So we have Willie Nelson and John Cougar Mellencamp and Neil Young performing at Farm Aid, and that is what is reported in the media. This is what people are told is the "news" about starvation in Africa or overproducti o n of farm products in the United States: that a bunch of celebrities are having rock concerts to raise people's consciousness. This is pitiful. This is pseudo-information. This has nothing to do with the reality of the problems that exist in these two sit u ations - problems that exist for very specific causes. They exist because in the governments of Africa - among other things they have done - have held the price of farm products below the market level, thereby encouraging consump- tion and discouraging pr o duction, and over here we have done the reverse. We've held prices above market levels, which discourages consumption and encourages production. In the first case you get a shortage and in the second you have a surplus. But if you don't know Econ 101 you d on't understand it. So, you report a rock concert, while nothing is reported that would help people understand the problem and address it in substantive fashion, which would be necessary if we want to correct either of these situations. Problem of Bias. W e 're now getting a sense of deja vu about the gas lines of the late 70s. People are concerned that gas lines will occur again in this country - which I predict flatly will not happen because domestic circumstances are different. In 1979, however, we had ga s lines at many of the gas stations here on Capitol Hill. I well remember the one at 4th and Pennsylvania, S.E. where there were gas lines up the block and around the corner. I remem- ber looking out of my office and seeing this gas line, and that night se e ing a report about it in which aTV reporter went to the scene and interviewed a person sitting in the gas line. It went something like this. "Well, how long have you been in this gas line?" "I've been here for an hour." "How do you feel about this?" "I'm mad as hell!" "What do you think is going on here?"


"Well, I think its some kind of conspiracy by the oil companies. Their tankers are sitting offshore and I've heard somebody - my brother-in-law talked to somebody who said he heard it was an oil com pany plot." "Well, that's it. Back to you, Dan." And that's it. That's the report. The American people were not told that they couldn't get any gasoline in their service sta- tions in major metro areas because of a) the price controls that were imposed on domestic production of petroleum; and b) the rationing that was then imposed, which prevented people from bringing gas in from other areas to sell it at higher prices, which they would have done in the absence of government controls. Nothing was conveyed t o the American people of substance and importance about those issues. So, putting together the bias prob- lem, the superficiality problem, and the incompetence problem, you have a real distortion of the flow of information that is needed for the proper fu n ctioning of our system. Tough Critics. How can this situation be corrected? There are really two basic ap- proaches to this. One, which has been done very well by a number of institutions, is simply to conduct a punishing critique of media performance. Th e book on this has been written by Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media, who has done a superlative job showing what is wrong with media performance on many of these issues. I'd say that what Reed and others have done in this respect has had impact. I have see n what I believe to be important changes, for example, in the reportage of the New York 71"mes in response to the critique that has been conducted by Accuracy in Media. I applaud that and I applaud the work of Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Brent Boz e ll, and others who are doing this kind of criticism. And I think it should be continued; I think it is important. However, I think that over the long haul that kind of external criticism is not going to change the essential character of the problem, becau s e the problem exists in the heads of the people who are running the media. The people who are doing the reporting and sitting in the editorial chairs and behind the microphones in the media are products of a certain cultural mind-set or world view which a f fects the way they perceive events, and therefore af- fects the kind of reportage we get. I don't think you are going to change that kind of reportage until you change the mix: of people in the press corps. Therefore, the approach that I have favored is t o try to train up a new generation of youthful journalists who will go into the press corps and provide some sort of balance in reporting. Practical Training. That is what the National Journalism Center is about. A group of us started it in 1977. Over the y ears we have had about 800 or 900 students, and I see some of our alumni sitting in this room today. We have emphasized the importance of practical ex- perience - getting hands-on training here in Washington but also getting beyond Washington - and gettin g in on the reporting side of the news, not just the editorial or political commentary side. We estimate that some 400 to 500 of our alumni are out there working in the media. They range from people who are producers at CNN and C-Span to editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal to reporters for the Washington Post and many papers across the nation. There are quite a few of them out there in positions of some in- fluence, which we are pleased to see.


There is a misconception about our program which is held by some of our liberal critics and some members of the liberal media, and also shared by some of the young people who come to us to participate in our program. The misconception is that we are in th e business of training conservative journalists to infiltrate the media. That is not true; it is not some- thing I would want to do, even if I could do it. What we are trying to do is something very different and it is a little hard to communicate. We are n ot particularly interested in training up conservative polemicists or editorial writers or syndicated columnists, though we have produced a few of these. We've got a lot of young people who come to us with such thoughts in mind; everybody wants to be the n ext Bill Buckley or the next George Will. We call this SCS: syndicated columnist syndrome. We try to discourage this for lots of reasons. Ile first reason is that if you are starting out in journalism, it should occur IF. to YOU to as.. why should anybody pay me for my opinions? What is there about my opinions, my conser- vative opinions, that will make somebody pay me to write them? The likelihood of that oc- curring is very remote. Accuracy Essential. The second reason, and a more serious objection, is t h at I don't think that the way to correct a spin from the left is to try to impart a spin from the right. If you go back to the premise of the discussion, the problem is the distortion of information. Then, abstractly considered, an information flow distor t ed from the right would be just as much a disservice as distortion from the left. What we really should be after from our communica- tions media is accurate information. And I don't see what any conservative or anybody else for that matter has to fear fro m accurate information. This is something we try to communi- cate to our young people. We believe that if you go into the media business as a reporter, then you are hanging out your shingle to the public saying "I'm in the information business; come to me f or accurate information and I'll provide it." That is what the communications media say they are doing. That allegedly is the main business of all the newspapers and television stations and radio stations and magazines that profess to be news media in thi s country. If I hang out my shingle and tell people to come to me for accurate information, and then I don't provide it - for whatever reason, because I'm an incompetent, or because I am lazy or superficial, or because I'm putting a spin on it - what am I? I'm a bum. I'm just as much a bum as a guy who says he will fix your car but then doesn't and gives you a big bill for it. Or somebody who professes to sell you a product and then doesn't deliver the product that he advertises. He's a bum. And I'd think t h e same thing of people in the communications media, whether they're liberals or conservatives, who profess to be providing accurate, balanced information and don't do it. Fundamental Obligation. There are lots of discussions at Sigma Delta Chi and the Ame r ican Society of Newspaper Editors about media ethics - should you accept a turkey that somebody gives you at Thanksgiving, and so on. To me, the fundamental ethical obliga- tion for someone in the media or any other business is very clear, very plain: Del i ver what you advertise. If you are in the news business, that means not putting a spin on what you are reporting. Other considerations also militate against the syndicated columnist syndrome: one is that if you really want to have influence on the course of events, you don't want your copy on the editorial page; you want it in the front page. Most people get their view of what is happen- ing not from reading a signed opinion column but from reading what's on page one - what's


in the headlines of the da y and what's on the news portion of the television broadcast or radio broadcast. So, if you really want to have some influence over this information flow, within the ethical guidelines I have suggested, then you want to be in the news part of the operatio n and not the editorial part. And finally, even if you want to be a polemicist and opinion journalist - it is a profession that many people have done very well and it's been my profession for a long time - even then you need the skills of a reporter. If yo u 're going to persuade people to your point of view, what is it that's going to persuade them? Your eloquence, your wit, your charm? Or is it your evidence? Unless you're very unusual, its going to be the last. What is going to be persuasive to other peopl e about your opinion is what kind of evidence you have to back it up. And that means you've got to be a reporter. So for all those reasons we hammer away at the need for reporting skills. Getting Out of Washington. With those thoughts in mind, let me sugge s t a few guidelines about how we think this should be done. The first thing we stress is very tough, because we are here and by our presence we're drawing people here, but what we hammer over and over again to many of these young people is get out of Washi n gton. Again, unless you're very unusual, you're not going to build a career in journalism by staying in Washington. It's very difficult to break into the media and it's very difficult to get hands-on media training in a major market like this. It's very s i milar to trying to break into show business by painting scenery for a major Broadway show. What you really need to do to break in as an actor is to go out into the sticks, get off-Broadway experience in a small company. Then as you develop your skills you move up into the major markets. The same thing applies in journalism. You need to get out of Washington and into a smaller market where you can get a real jour- nalism job and learn the skills of the trade. A second rule we stress is that the most importa n t thing about any story that you cover, any assignment you have, is you. When you go out there to cover that story, you're the only one there. Your editor is not there. Everyone is depending on you to get the information ac- curately, bring it back to the office, and write the story. And that means you have got to be prepared - not only in the specific sense, to master the skills of journalism as such - but you have to have something between your ears; you've got to have some kind of conceptual ap- paratus up there that allows you to understand what you are looking at, to assess it, and to ask questions and get information about it based on your informed intuition. That means you need to spend a lot of time informing yourself. You need to spend a lot of tim e reading. We have a lot of speakers in our program who stress this and I would reiterate it to anyone interested in this business: If you're not interested in reading, then probably this is not the business for you. If you're going to be in the informatio n business cranking out information, you've got to take information in. And, by and large, information is absorbed by reading. Reading books, magazines, and newspapers is key for most people in this business, unless you're just going to be a talking head o n the TV screen. I would stress again the importance of practical experience of some kind. I think it is most likely to come outside of Washington. But even if you are here in Washington, try to get a job where you actually do something in a journalistic w a y as opposed to one where you're hanging around going out for coffee and watching somebody else do something. One of the things we stress in our internships - and there are about three dozen cooperating media out- lets where we send people for practical t raining - is a requirement that interns actually be


allowed to do substantive work. If they don't, if we find out that they spent their entire internship typing the rolodex or picking up somebody's laundry, then we don't send anybody back there. That 's not the way you learn journalism. You've got to get that hands- on experience and that's what the internships are about. Mastering the Craft of Writing. The final thing that we stress is that one of the most im- portant things for anyone to do who want s to go into journalism - even if it's the electronic media - is to write. It is important to get in the habit of writing under deadline. Even if it isn't under deadline you should write a lot, because it is in the craft of writing that you sift through yo u r ideas; you clarify them, you learn what works and what doesn't work, and you get in the habit of expressing the ideas you have and presenting the information you have with clarity and directness through the written word. Even in the electronic media, th at is of the utmost significance. And writing for the electronic media is in many ways an even tougher craft than writing for the print media, so you need that writing experience either way. That is what we try to teach our young people.




M. Stanton

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy