Life & Liberty: How to Use the Media Before the Media Use You


"The media are biased." Since I have forged my career in broadcasting, it's an accusation I frequently encounter. And the criticism is warranted. Not all media outlets, print or broadcast, are biased, nor biased in the same way. But what passes for "objectivity" is often just a veneer—a thin layer of good-looking deception spread over something else entirely.

The media are not biased, however, in the overtly political sense that most of its critics imagine. My own experience has convinced me that if the media show a bias in favor of, for example, liberalism, as many conservatives insist, it is because liberals know how to use the media. In short, they know how to cater to the real biases that operate in the media: biases on television in favor of the kinetic (that is, action) over the static (that is, intelligent analysis); biases in large urban dailies and on television and radio in favor of minorities that are sufficiently affirmative-actionable; and biases floating through the hinterland, in print and broadcast media alike, in favor of regimentation in social behavior and restrictions on individual liberties.

I began my own broadcast media career explicitly informed (by a friendly mole at the nation's most prestigious "public" TV station, WGBH) that I had been taken on in order to fend off Spiro Agnew—that is, to "prove" that WGBH-TV wasn't liberally biased, by parading a conservative in front of the camera. This experience confirmed my belief that there is room in the regulated media for all types, and even room in the unregulated print medium for many types.

But it is liberals who have had the most success in using the media before the media used them. Communists and avowed militant socialists are a bit dicey even for the contemporary American media. Conservatives often seem too stuffy and tongue-tied. Libertarians and others insufficiently easy to categorize by people who know only conservative and liberal, seem, well, too odd. Only liberals are fully comprehended by the media in an America that has been more molded by what is today called liberalism than by any other "ism."

Getting a wider range of opinion and a more-informative range of facts across the airwaves to American TV and radio audiences would be worthwhile for that audience and gratifying for those who have felt excluded from access to those media. A liberal bias does prevail, but, from an insider's standpoint, there are ways to get other viewpoints heard or seen.

The most important consideration is the nature of the broadcast media bias: it is not primarily political. Instead, it is a bias in favor of action, hubbub, noise controversy, and familiarity in ideas. Kinetic excitement coupled with familiar slogans and premises warm the hearts of those who decide what does and what does not get air time. There's no point in offering ideas at a soporific press conference, when across the street a "welfare rights" organization is demonstrating on behalf of another handout.

Energetic is better than static. A dreary conference on the meaning of the gold standard and how it might touch on the price of soybeans is simply not a priority item for media coverage. But a display of a couple hundred Krugerrands, a few old $20 gold pieces, and a nice new suit of clothes might do the trick. How? By pointing out, in a dozen words, that with one $20 gold piece you can buy a new suit of clothes, as Abraham Lincoln could, but with a $20 bill you can buy a pair of nondesigner jeans. Getting the notion across that favoring the gold standard is not merely some old-fashioned quirk is difficult if the gold standard-bearers expect to put their case before the community on the six o'clock news with a pedagogical lecture. But getting the point across with something telegenic might work.

Those who know best how to use the media have learned that the most beautiful word in the language is the name of the person one is addressing. They do not deluge TV stations with hand-outs addressed to "Assignment Editor." Instead, they husband their resources and draw media coverage with professionally assembled press releases directed to named individuals bearing specific titles. Nor do these people time their media event to coincide with, for example, a presidential inaugural address. They've learned to pick dull times and fill them with exciting events, which they advertise amply in advance to those with the power to assign cameras or microphones to the event. And they do not preach to the converted. Instead, they tell the media what they have to say.

Crucial to beating the seeming curse of media unacceptability is beating the real curse of media boredom. Occasionally, those with a pretty good track record of gaining access to the media violate this—consider the laconic, whiny, and just plain dull George McGovern, inflicted upon America by an absent-minded Democratic party in 1972. One needn't opine about Walter Mondale last year—but generally those who succeed with the media do not nominate bores for office; they do not elect or appoint bores to positions with media visibility; and they don't let bores serve as masters of ceremonies at events. If every conservative event had somebody like William F. Buckley as its main draw, and every liberal event had somebody like George McGovern, the "bias" would suddenly appear to be very rightward indeed.

Those with media savvy cultivate friends in the media. They feed these friends scoops and never lead them astray, thus building a short-term but nonetheless useful fidelity or at least friendliness. They get those who agree with them to call the radio talk shows when they're on, creating in the minds of other listeners a sense that whatever or whoever it is that's being pushed is worthy and popular, not bizarre and unpopular. This may reflect my own particular bias in favor of radio talk shows, which pay my mortgage, but I'm convinced there is no more simple, direct, and persuasive a way to win friends and influence people through the broadcast media, if you're not Michael Jackson already, than talk programs. I can usually spot a hopelessly inept political campaign or a woefully impractical and wistfully out-of-joint political movement just by noticing whether the campaign organizers or the movement's propagandists have managed to prime the pump with supportive calls.

Dale Carnegie still remains a master of savvy. He said, "Be hearty in your praise and lavish in your approbation," this as a capsule explanation of how to win friends and influence people. People notice a thank-you letter, they appreciate follow-up, they like the ongoing contact. Those who dominate the airwaves are aware of these obvious things, whereas those who spend their time railing against the media and bemoaning its bias are usually too inward-looking to act commonsensically. It doesn't require a miracle to get a viewpoint heard and seen. What it takes is common sense.

Contributing editor David Brudnoy has been a TV commentator since 1971 and a leading radio talk host in New England since 1976.