Opinion

An amateur’s guide to manipulating the mass media

By Andy Hobbs, Mirror editor

News media mimic domestic beasts of burden: Sometimes lazy, often trainable, but always hungry.

Politicians represent one group motivated to “win the media,” especially during an election. You can see a good example with the current Democratic presidential primary candidates as they fight for daily headlines.

Don’t forget about corporations, whose publicity machines relentlessly pitch brand names in an effort to score free advertising wrapped in journalistic integrity.

News outlets, especially those on television and the Internet, rely on a topic’s urgency to hook an audience that demands immediacy in the first place.

While every day has its news, not every day bears enough fruit. Likewise, any journalist will say it’s much easier to be fed a story than to hunt for one.

No news outlet is immune to spin or distraction. Rather, news outlets resist manipulation to different degrees. But if the mass media rule as conduits of information, then so does the pirate who learns how to silently hijack the messenger’s ship.

A recent report by The New York Times explored a “Trojan horse” used by the Bush administration to slant reporting on the Iraq war. The administration, which mastered media manipulation long ago, deployed “military analysts” armed with specific talking points on Iraq matters.

The media depend on so-called expert sources — the more official, the better. The news media need credibility to survive. Picture the paradox when the Bush administration labeled competing facts and dissent to its policies as unpatriotic, and ultimately challenged the legitimacy of the press. Yet at the same time, the administration controlled the primary sources of official information that are so vital to credibility.

As a result, the press either had to dig elsewhere or accept the spoon-fed sound bites that, for a time, kept journalists and readers “in check.”

The public relations assault also continued on the education front. The Bush administration’s Department of Education paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in his 2004 broadcasts.

As part of the deal, Williams regularly commented on No Child Left Behind and also interviewed Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots, according to USA Today.

Unfortunately in the Information Age, media outlets also manipulate themselves.

A major newspaper that breaks a story delivers what is seen as the definitive report, which the rest of the nation’s media pack will pick up with little questioning.

But enough about politicians, corporations and the national media. Let’s explore how everyday people can work the local media to their advantage. We all love a good story, this paper included.

For starters, compare “news” to a carrot, and the media to a horse. In order to maximize the proverbial carrot’s effect on leading the horse:

1. The carrot must be damn tasty — less like a crunchy veggie dipped in dressing, and more like a cheeseburger dripping with bacon grease. Mmm, bacon.

2. The carrot must be sliced up neatly on a tray, complete with napkins and a glass of beer. It also helps if the carrot is sexy and likes to snuggle in the mornings.

In other words, the news must seem unusual, controversial and urgent, then presented in such a way that minimal legwork is required to fish for the day’s catch.

If a journalist receives your tip in the morning, that provides plenty of time to finish the story before heading home for dinner.

For an example of a local media stroker, take publicity stunt maestro Tim Eyman. His ongoing efforts to pass initiatives into law require news coverage because of their effect on state residents. Love him or hate him, he can’t be ignored.

However, Eyman also knows how to work the media to his advantage through both positive and negative publicity.

Every mention of his name in the media, including this paper right now, incrementally increases the legitimacy of his actions. He consistently keeps the media privy to what he’s doing, luring news outlets with potential topics to cover.

On a slow news day, Eyman may just strike gold.

Legendary communications theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” He said the characteristics of a medium itself (television, newspaper) will shape how the consumer understands the message that medium delivers.

When talking about manipulating the media, we must acknowledge the media’s own ability to manipulate public opinion.

After all, media outlets still decide what content to present — and how to present it.

Mirror editor Andy Hobbs: editor@fedwaymirror.com (253) 925-5565.

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