Oct 1 2006

The Power of Conservative Spinning

How the right outguns the left in the PR wars

In addition to being a journalism professor (whose courses have included Politics of Media), I’m the host of a nationally aired TV program, Enviro Close-Up. My producer, Joan Flynn, and I get many e-mails proposing subjects and guests for the show—the overwhelming majority from conservative public relations companies promoting conservative guests.

In terms of volume and intensity, there’s nothing comparable from the progressive world. Speaking of the politics of media, it’s a clear and daily demonstration to me of how the right, far more than the left, realizes the importance of communication.

“Special Guests”

The most active PR operation that pitches us is Special Guests. Examples of some of the subjects and guests it has proposed in recent times:

“New Study: Gays More Likely to Have Gay Kids.” The pitch offers Dr. Paul Cameron, chair of the Family Research Institute in Colorado Springs, ready “to discuss a new study . . . of adult children of homosexuals.” Dr. Cameron is also available to talk on “Homosexuals Twice as Apt to Drive Intoxicated”—based, too, on new “eye-opening” research.

Then there is “Immigration 101: Public Schools Give Credits to Students Who Protest.” The peg: a Maryland school that decided to “grant students community service credit for attending immigration demonstrations.” The guest: Katharine DeBrecht, author of Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!, a right-wing children’s book. She is also available for a show on “Madonna Endorses Hillary: Life Imitates Cartoon Art,” on Madonna’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president.

There is “Mr. Minuteman Goes to Washington,” proposing a discussion on Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, calling “upon Congress to launch an investigation of the U.S. Border Patrol’s ‘cozy’ relationship with the Mexican government.”

Or what about a show about the “National Day of Prayer” with Mike Jeffress, a minister and author of The Prayer of Jehoshaphat for America: The Power of Repentance in a Time of Crisis, which “outlines a spiritual plan for winning the war against terrorism.”

“Where are the Apologies? Karl Rove Vindicated,” would be a discussion with RightMarch.com president William Greene. “Where are the apologies from MoveOn.org and other leftist organizations who falsely accused Karl Rove, besmirching his character?” Greene will stress.

“K-Mart Coughs Up $13 Million in Damages: How Companies Can Avoid K-Mart’s Mistake” would be a program about K-Mart being hit with a “whopping” penalty from a civil action charging the chain with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. “What lesson can corporate America learn from K-Mart’s mistake?” That would be a talking point with shopping expert Bill Thompson.

There are environmental subjects in the e-mail missives, too—befitting Enviro Close-Up—such as “Bush: Ending Our Addiction to Oil, Embracing Alternative Energy.” This would be a discussion of George W. Bush in “a second nationally televised news conference once again giving the clarion call for America to end our oil addiction.” It would feature Bernard Walter, president of a company that produces “a superior battery” for hybrid cars.

“You can change the world!”

The president of Special Guests is Jerry McGlothlin who, he explained, at 22 got into “the art business printing lithographs of starving artists” and became a millionaire. After he utilized his intense energy to sell a lithograph to Thomas Madden, a former vice president of NBC who went into PR, “Tom told me, ‘You’re a natural for PR.’”

For a time he was partners with Madden, one-time PR director for ABC and author of the memoir Spin Man.

A key event for Special Guests occurred in 1988, two years after its founding, when McGlothlin was able to get Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry booked on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That national television exposure “launched” Terry and his anti-abortion drive as “a national movement,” said McGlothlin. This convinced him that he could not only “make money” through PR, but “you can move social causes! You can change the world!”

Since that TV appearance, he proudly noted, 80,000 people have been arrested in protests against abortion, twice the number, he said, arrested during the civil rights movement. One of those arrested was McGlothlin. He is not only a PR man but someone who believes in the causes and people he promotes.

He finds getting access to media “easy as pie for me now. I know the people; I know the producers.” He rattled off names of producers at the most popular TV and radio programs in the United States, and told of his clients in recent weeks getting on NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS’s Morning Show.

“It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys!” he exclaimed.

McGlothlin is based in Naperville, Illinois, near Chicago, and has six other bookers working for Special Guests in locations around the nation.

“A fundamental understanding”

Special Guests is among many conservative-oriented PR operations, including Washington-based Creative Response Concepts, run by former Pat Buchanan communications director Greg Mueller, with clients including the Free Enterprise Foundation, Federalist Society, Manhattan Institute and media companies including Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, Universal Studios and the conservative Regnery Publishing. MGP & Associates in New York focuses on evangelical Christian causes.

The giant PR operation Hill & Knowlton, with 1,100 employees at 73 offices in 39 countries, including 19 in the U.S., long represented the tobacco industry—it worked on getting media to downplay evidence of the link between smoking and cancer—other corporate interests and conservative government administrations in the U.S. and abroad. “We put in place whatever is needed to help get the end result,” declares its website. And the list goes on.

“On the right you have a fundamental understanding of the importance of media,” says John Stauber, founder and executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, publishers of PR Watch. Over the last several decades, through foundations and as individuals, conservatives have poured “tons of funding” into media work. In the “progressive community,” especially among most foundations, there is not this comprehension or commitment.

“The seeds are in the ground. The sprouts are all over the place. What the garden needs is one big dose of steady rainfall,” said Stauber. “Look at Democracy Now, community radio stations meeting here in Madison [Wisconsin] at the National Grassroots Radio Conference as we speak, investigative reporting on websites. There is a flowering of really progressive media but it’s not going anywhere unless foundations and progressive funders quit with lip service and open their pocketbooks and, in an intelligent way, help to democratize and reinvigorate media.”

“A hunger for debate”

Progressive entities that have demonstrated that media work is practical and fruitful are the Institute for Public Accuracy and the Mainstream Media Project.

Norman Solomon said his “two large inspirations” for IPA, of which he is executive director, came from two directions. He was looking into the Heritage Foundation and found 40 percent of its spending—some $20 million—“was going to media outreach.” And he read a piece by Molly Ivins relating how talkshow producers starting their day find “a flood of offers from right-wing and corporate sources to provide experts.” But there was “nothing analogous” from “progressive non-corporate sources.”

He managed to get a $100,000 “Public Interest Pioneer Grant” from the Stern Family Fund and created IPA in 1997.

Nearly every day it sends news releases via e-mail and fax to 10,000 “media professionals,” explains Sam Husseini, IPA communications director, who works out of the National Press Club building in Washington. The emphasis is “jumping on breaking events or puncturing a prevailing myth.” (Husseini is a former FAIR staffer, while Solomon serves on FAIR’s board.)

The releases present a list of individual sources, a quote from each on the topic at hand and contact information. “Each person on a news release gets about 10 interviews” typically, although sometimes there are many more—“a total deluge,” said Husseini.

“We get a fair amount of public and community radio and a tremendous amount of commercial talk radio—there is a hunger for debate on various outlets and a lot of them are right-wing. And we have had success in cable TV and print,” said Husseini. International media also pick up on IPA releases, and they “bounce around the blogosphere.”

“IPA gains media access for those voices commonly excluded or drowned out by government and corporate-backed institutions,” says its website.

“Plenty of openings”

The Mainstream Media Project also started with a foundation grant, from the Ploughshares Fund. A catalyst was the rise of right-wing talk radio as personified by Rush Limbaugh. Its founder and executive director, Mark Sommer, whose background is in peace research, says: “We’ve found that the media is more neutral. Not all of it. But you can find plenty of openings in it. I think we’re nowhere near tapping the full potential.” Since its start in 1995, Mainstream Media Project has gotten more than 17,000 radio interviews booked, and now syndicates its own radio program, A World of Possibilities.

“The real problem is funders who don’t really get it, they don’t understand,” said Sommer. “They have no strategic sense about media.” Nevertheless, Mainstream Media Project, located in little Arcata, California, has gotten grants from such foundations as Ford, MacArthur, Kellogg, Rockefeller Brothers and Merck Family Fund. Still, out of 40,000 foundations in the United States, “maybe 10 or fewer have media departments,” said Sommer.

It conducts campaigns on “special projects” like hunger, energy, consumerism and space weapons. Sommer works with five media coordinators who work the phones getting placements. “Initially, I thought we would be limited to public and community radio,” he said, “but two-thirds of our bookings are on commercial radio, and half with conservative hosts.” It recruits guests who can “relate to a general audience, are problem-solvers, innovative in their thinking,” said Sommer. “If you come with a chip on your shoulder, they will resist. If your attitude is: I have some information here and I have some credentials with which to speak and I am willing to listen to others and engage in a non-confrontational way, you can make your point and be invited back.”

But the Institute for Public Accuracy and the Mainstream Media Project are dwarfed by the conservative media machine.

Because of Enviro Close-Up I’ve had my own interactions with progressive foundations that consistently stress “we don’t do media,” with many stressing “we do grassroots organizing” instead. When I tell them that media work can be grassroots organizing in today’s global village, the reaction is silence—quite a contrast to the loud, knowing media roar and activities of the right.

Please also see the sidebar to this article: Applying the Knowledge