Have Your Way with the Local Newspaper
As a newspaper reporter, I often find myself interacting with people who often interact with newspaper reporters.
I'm often surprised at how bad they are at it. Especially the politicians.
Does it really need to be said that you should never, ever ask to see an article before it appears in print?
A Google search turns up a number of sites purporting to provide valuable advice on dealing with the press, but they deal more in wishes than in the real world.
A personal favorite: "Assume good intentions on the part of the reporter."
If you are running for office (and if you now hold office, you constantly are), you should know that newspapers can be your friend -- a very valuable friend. But first you have to know how they work. Toward that end, here are a few tips for getting your story in the paper, and for having it told (to the degree possible) the way you would prefer to have it told.
If you are an elected official, assume that the reporter with whom you are speaking is skeptical and is seeking an opening for a good, juicy story.
If you are a Republican candidate or officeholder, assume that the reporter thinks you're both stupid and self-serving.
Not all reporters think that way, but the vast majority do.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby recently provided a nice overview of what he called the "lack of ideological diversity" found within most American newsrooms, describing "the reflexive support for Democrats, the distaste for religion and the military, the cheerleading for liberal enthusiasms from gun control to gay marriage[.]"
And he's one of them. That should tell you something.
It's possible there's a conservative in the newsroom. But because he would prefer to avoid pariahdom, and unemployment, he is keeping his head down. And he's not going to raise it for your benefit.
Play the odds; assume the reporter to whom you're speaking would love to reveal to the world what a bad person you are.
Despite this knowledge, you must visibly welcome the opportunity to speak with the reporter. Listen carefully to each question, take a moment to frame your answer, and then let fly.
But be prepared. Practice first. You may be great at the dinner table, and at cocktail parties, but most of those folks aren't seeking to trip you up.
Practice a lot, particularly with someone who disagrees with your politics.
There are a few questions that are standard issue for interviews with conservative candidates.
For example, if you say there are too many government agencies, you will immediately be asked which you would shut down.
If you say there is too much government regulation, rest assured the next question will be, '"which regulations would you seek to revoke?"
Do you utilize any of the aspects of ObamaCare in your personal life, including having a son or daughter who is taking advantage of the up-to-26 age limit? Do you or your parents plan to use the new "doughnut hole coverage," or will you pay as if it doesn't exist?
How much does a gallon of milk cost? A loaf of bread?
Explain why you believe in discriminating against gay people.
Why do you want to destroy Social Security?
Are you still beating your wife?
Remember, all the reporter needs is one sound bite. Once it's placed into the article's lead, he has established it in a large portion of the public's mind as your campaign's centerpiece. The fact that it isn't, and the fact that its placement more accurately reflects the personal political views of the reporter, is immaterial.
It likely will then be repeated by other reporters, and finally it may be said to be your "obsession."
The New Yorker declared Michele Bachmann is obsessed with appearances.
Herman Cain is obsessed with the number 45.
Newt Gingrich? He's obsessed with Saul Alinsky.
Do you see a pattern?
Of course, if the reporter is determined, there is nothing you can do. Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert never said the Aurora shootings were the result of "ongoing attacks on Judaeo-Christian beliefs."
But it sure grabs the eye, and generates the clicks, which is all Huffpost writer Jen Bendry was seeking.
It isn't all gloom and doom. You may very well find you're sitting down with someone with no fire in his eye, a reporter who is simply going through the motions and who, unless you mention your mistress, won't raise his eyes from his notepad. There are a lot of those.
But never assume he's not paying attention. He may simply be hung over.
You may now be saying to yourself, "But it's unfair that Democrats are treated differently."
Buck up, buddy. You're a conservative. You know life is unfair, and you know it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
We long ago cornered the market on that bit of wisdom.
And hey, it could be worse. You could be a libertarian. Reporters have been known to sprain their eyeballs by rolling them so vigorously at those guys.
Remember, too, that most of these reporters believe they are being objective. In their view, you are an uneducated rustic at best, a greedy scumbag at worst. That their story reflects that fact is a tribute to their reporting skill.
If you feel you were treated unfairly in a story, there is a solution.
First, sit down that very day and bang out a long, angry response. Breathe fire. Spew venom.
And then (you know what's coming next, don't you?) tear it up.
After a good night's sleep, give the reporter a call and cordially say, "I don't believe your article is entirely accurate. I know you value accuracy in your reporting, so I just want to tell you that A did not say B to C."
Don't "demand" a retraction. If you would like a retraction, say, "I believe that is a significant error. Would you mind providing a correction in the paper?"
The requested retraction must apply to a factual error that is materially important to the story. Minutiae and hurt feelings don't count.
End the conversation with: "Thank you for your hard work on this story. I look forward to working with you in the future."
Do not (do not!) in any communication, written or spoken, tell the reporter you were treated unfairly. Do not suggest you are being treated differently because you are a conservative. If you do, you will be immediately labeled a whiner by everyone at the paper, from the delivery boy to the publisher.
If you are similarly mistreated in another article, do the same, but this time provide your comments as a letter to the editor.
Concern yourself solely with factual errors, not differences in opinion. "I explained to you that we worked on that bill for 15 years, not 12" is much more damaging than "I believe you have twisted my words to make me sound unreasonable."
The latter will leave the reader assuming you were caught saying something you now regret.
Repeat as required. Each and every time you must be the bigger person.
I didn't say this was an easy or perfect solution, but trust me: when that third letter to the editor hits the aforementioned editor's desk, he will most certainly relinquish control of his excretory functions, particularly if you have each time been cordial, respectful, and correct.
The reporter will then receive what psychologists euphemistically call a behavioral correction.
Two final notes on this topic: never refuse to speak to a reporter who was "unfair." And whatever you do, never go over the reporter's head to complain (with the exception of the formal letter to the editor, intended for publication).
Now let's look at a final scenario: you're on the campaign trail and you misspoke, or you're in office and you did something stupid.
You find yourself on the firing line.
The best way to disarm a reporter is by spilling everything. I grew up in Louisiana, where the politicians have all undergone guiltectomies. Neither do they fear reprisals -- e.g., losing the next election -- simply because they were caught with their pants down.
Instead they each time simply say, "Yeah, I did that. Geez, I'm sorry."
And then they (this is important) follow it up with a joke.
The whole rope-a-dope thing leaves reporters despairing.
That's because virtually every cover-up is worse than the original error.
To further illustrate that point, I'll add one more item.
If you don't learn anything else today, remember this: when a reporter asks for information from a candidate or a public official, only two things can happen. A) The reporter receives the information, which is good, or B) he is denied the information. As every reporter will tell you, the latter is much, much better.
Theodore Dawes was a reporter, editor, and publisher for more than 30 years. These days he's a consultant and speaker on media relations. For more of his columns, see Theodore Dawes. To contact Ted, drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.