Jul 1 2000

Inside the News Shapers

New book exposes right-wing think tanks' media strategy

The dominance of right-wing think tanks and policy analysts in the media is a quantifiable fact. (See Extra!, 5-6/00.) But how does this happen, and what are the consequences?

Those questions are explored by Trudy Lieberman in Slanting the Story: The Forces that Shape the News (New Press). Lieberman, the director of the Center for Consumer Health Choices at Consumers Union and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review, collects case studies that exemplify the strategies of some of the most powerful institutions on the right (Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute). She demonstrates their ability to turn legislative priorities into media campaigns, whether the goal is to “modernize” the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), attack Head Start or alter the fundamental structure of Medicare.

The result is an overview of the ways Beltway think tanks can dominate media discussion of important national issues: by personal involvement in the story as expert sources or pundits, by funneling research and talking points to sympathetic media outlets, or by defining the parameters of debate on an issue through dogged lobbying and public relations work. As Cato’s Michael Tanner described his group’s campaign to promote Social Security privatization: “We have no higher priority. We won’t rest until people have control over 100 percent of their money.”

Lieberman begins with a useful debunking of the notion of a “liberal” media, including a discussion of media watchdogs on the right that act to reinforce the priorities of the aforementioned policy groups. For example, during the legislative battle over Medicare in 1995, a core complaint of the right was a semantic quibble over the media’s use of the expression “cuts in Medicare.” The “payoff” for groups like Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center came in awkward moments like the one Lieberman transcribed from NBC’s Today show (10/24/95), where reporters Tim Russert and Lisa Myers stammered and struggled to avoid calling the changes “cuts,” trying to adhere to the right’s preferred “slowing of growth.”

Readers curious about how journalists are led along by ideologically charged research or advocacy groups will find Lieberman’s personal interviews of reporters enlightening–or unsettling. Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief Dan Goodgame explains: “We’re interested in what’s new and fresh and interesting and a helluva lot of what’s new and fresh and interesting is conservative ideas.”

That particular editor’s interest in what’s “fresh” notwithstanding, the pattern the book documents is familiar: Conservative think tanks identify a priority, define their role in the debate and work the media to gain the upper hand.

Occasionally the media play a more active role in aiding conservative think tanks. When the Washington Legal Foundation launched an ad campaign in 1994 to target the FDA’s “over-regulation,” one factoid in the group’s ad campaign could be traced back to ABC’s John Stossel: that the FDA was withholding approval for the Sensor Pad, a device designed to detect breast lumps. In Canada, so the story went, the device was approved in 60 days.

In his familiar zeal to uncover needless government regulation, Stossel made one glaring error: The device was never approved in Canada, and was in fact pulled from the market. So while such groups are normally working to influence media coverage, in this case the group was able to pick up ideas from an influential journalist–an unfortunate choice, in this case.

Lieberman also deals with left-of-center think tanks, who are often shut out of media coverage or forced to act in response to a new study coming from the likes of Cato or Heritage Foundation. Their efforts can often lead to little or no media coverage, regardless of the strength of their research. Nonetheless, Lieberman also claims that “many progressive organizations seem almost afraid to articulate and stand for any position,” though she doesn’t give examples.

Shaping the News paints a useful, if depressing, picture of reporting on national affairs, particularly issues of public policy. Though the case studies are mainly of battles that have come and gone on Capitol Hill, the current discussion of Social Security “reform” is in dire need of the kind of careful examination Lieberman gives to these policy debates of the past few years. As she notes, the Cato Institute was sending journalists a one-page fax about Social Security almost every day. One can only hope that such important work will come before it’s too late.