[Note: This piece is a sidebar to "The Power of Conservative Spinning."]
There was “a significant increase of understanding by conservatives on how to deal with media” with the rise of Ronald Reagan, explains Morton C. Blackwell, founder and president of the conservative Leadership Institute.
“There was very little to distinguish Barry Goldwater from Ronald Reagan in terms of policy,” he said. But there “was an enormous difference in their approach to communications.” Blackwell, who prides himself on having been the youngest Goldwater delegate at the 1964 Republican National Convention, said that Goldwater “really enjoyed needling people who disagreed with him. In contrast, Reagan generally cared what other people thought and had an ability—part-natural, part-studied—to say unpleasant things pleasantly. And it made all the difference.”
In 1979, Blackwell founded the Leadership Institute—with a focus on media. Its “mission is to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative public policy leaders,” says its website. It has “trained” more than 39,000 students, including Bush strategist Karl Rove, former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist.
Based in Alexandria, Virginia, the Leadership Institute has a staff of 47 and a budget last year of $8 million. Understanding the need to invest in and develop communications skills at all levels of the media, the Institute offers a comprehensive package of training programs, including:
A Student Publications School. “Feeling censored on campus?” asks the website. “Want to have your views heard for a change? Start your own independent, conservative campus publication or give your existing paper a boost.”
A Broadcast Journalism School that is “a one-stop, full-service seminar for conservatives who want a career in journalism,” says the website. The school offers a “‘Balance in Media Fellowship’ to help BJS graduates land unpaid broadcast internships. The program provides up to $3,000 for a three-month internship to help defray the housing and living expenses associated with the internship.”
A Public Relations School at which “conservative PR experts will give you the tools to develop a complete public relations strategy, win media favor and deliver your message effectively,” says LeadershipInstitute.org. Blackwell says students are told: “You can’t treat the print and broadcast media as if they were your mortal enemies. Even if you don’t sympathize with them, you have to play it straight and tell the truth to them and remember what their needs are.”
Effective TV Techniques Workshops. “What do Bill O’Reilly, Katie Couric, Bill Clinton and Ann Coulter all have in common?” asks the website. “They all understand that when it comes to TV, it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. How you look and how you behave on camera can influence your audience more than the content of your words.” These workshops offer instructions on “what to wear—and what not to wear, how to speak in the most audience-attracting manner, how to simplify a two-minute story into 15 seconds without losing its impact.”
A new Internet Activist School. “Don’t get left behind as technology advances,” says the website. Blackwell says the Internet needs to be understood and used by “anybody serious in changing public policy.”
Reagan, says Blackwell, presented a model, and “if you are smart and find out what works, then you apply the knowledge. . . . We’re getting bigger and better all the time. And we’re going to keep this up.”