You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)
Chapter 14. “MAKING IT” IN GRANDMA’S EYES
My grandmother was a sweet lady who loved me but could never figure out why, after I studied radio and TV in college, I couldn’t fix her TV set. The guy down the street never went to college, but he fixed her set and charged her fifty dollars. I suspect that until she died in her eighties she figured I would eventually “make it” if I could just learn to fix her set. She never really knew what a producer did and she vaguely suspected I didn’t have a real job. I had a lot of illness as a child, and my mother had to work to help support the family, which was unusual back in the 1940s and 1950s. Therefore I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother. Every Saturday we would go to the movies, and I think that gave me great interest in show business and the arts.
Grandma was a simple woman with little education but a strong sense of values. She was born before the turn of the century, and even though there were many advances in science, technology, and household conveniences during her lifetime, the greatest miracle in her life was television. She couldn’t understand how all those people could get into that one little box. She watched Lawrence Welk religiously and knew about all of the families of the people on the show. The concept of television technology evaded her, though. She was lonely in her later years, and it really didn’t matter about the technology as long as her friends were there when she pushed the button.
In 1964, I remember she was adamantly opposed to Barry Goldwater for president because she had heard that he was against TV. I never understood this but eventually questioned her at great length. She swore that she read in the paper that he was against television. I think she thought Barry Goldwater, if elected president, would personally come up on her porch and take her TV set away. I found out later that Barry Goldwater had said he was against TVA—Tennessee Valley Authority. Grandma never heard the A and disliked Goldwater until she died.
I once knew a television sales manager who couldn’t describe the miracle of television, either. So when people asked him what he did for a living, he said, “I sell pictures that fly through the air.” That may be the best description I’ve ever heard. Actually, because television is a miracle, we act the way we do in the presence of all miracles—we change our behavior. Because there is something mysterious about it, it’s intimidating. And consequently, we often act unlike ourselves when a television camera is present. I still can’t repair a TV set, but I often think television has done so much good for people that I hope they have television in heaven. And I hope to God that at least one TV repairman led a good enough life to make it up there, too, so he can fix Grandma’s TV set.
GUILTY TILL PROVEN INNOCENT
Today, people come to me for a different type of TV repair. I often “fix” the programs themselves or the people who are going to appear on them.
The typical situation involves a company about to be featured on a TV news program. Since nobody ever wins a journalism award for reporting on the good things companies do, the chances are that my client is facing allegations that will ultimately prove to be somewhere between the truth and a hysterical rumor. In the interest of fair play and equal time, the journalist on the story has offered to interview a company spokesperson. The interview will take two hours and will be edited down to thirty seconds or less (although the interviewer doesn’t tell him that). Unfortunately, in today’s world of media, if you get a negative story, many people assume you must be guilty of something. That’s what so many companies fear—and with good reason.
Mark Twain said it best: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
GIRDING FOR BATTLE
The chairman of the company is sitting in my New York studio. He’s asking me where to begin when Geraldo Rivera or his regional equivalent comes crashing into the boardroom with his kamikaze camera crew, equipped with zoom lenses, glaring lights, and microphones. The reporter, of course, wants an explanation—preferably a confession of guilt—in time for the six o’clock news.
The fact that the executive is in my office says a lot about the communication requirements of a business leader. Today, executives had better be prepared to meet the press, especially if a crisis catapults their company onto the front page or the evening news. Years ago, Ralph Nader came out with his first book, Unsafe at Any Speed, an attack on American cars, including the Corvair. I scheduled Nader for a TV appearance. It seemed only fair to get somebody from General Motors to refute Nader’s allegations. I called the company and asked for an executive spokesperson. The company wouldn’t even send someone from the public relations department. It played ostrich, refusing to acknowledge that I, Nader, or the book even existed.
Businesses today may be as wary as ever of the news media, but most companies understand that if they remain silent during a controversy, they will be presumed guilty by the press and, probably, by the public. Although some companies (such as Mobil Oil) believed early on in the value of actively engaging their critics, many people in business still wait until news coverage escalates to kangaroo-court proportions before they finally defend themselves.
NO PLACE TO HIDE
There is no hiding from the media today. In the United States in 1994, there were 1,512 television stations, 11,558 radio stations, 12,513 newspapers, 12,136 periodicals, and 11,214 cable-operating systems.
Every hour of every day, these news and information-gathering media need to fill an insatiable “new hole” with stories and reports. No one is safe from the relentless scrutiny of some critic somewhere, who uses the news media to publicize—and, sometimes, to sensationalize—rumors and allegations. For better or worse, the news media have become like lawyers. They’ll take on almost any case, often without enough consideration of its merits. Even the Girl Scouts have been attacked these days for “exploiting child labor” when little girls go door-to-door selling cookies!
The late pop artist Andy Warhol once made what sounded like an off-the-wall prediction about all this. He said that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes—because eventually every American will be interviewed on TV. If you watch the evening news or pick up a newspaper, Andy Warhol’s seemingly outrageous forecast appears to be coming true. In the past, people in business could be assured that their visibility would be confined within the company. Today, with the news media probing everywhere, it is increasingly likely that even a middle manager will at least be quoted in a trade journal. The most senior executives are almost bound to appear on a cable TV news program or a radio show. As you rise to more prominence in your company, the odds increase that your exposure will include being on a network or local TV news program and being quoted on the pages of major business news publications.
If the idea of appearing on TV in a confrontational format scares the hell out of you, you’re not alone. There are any number of how-to books that can give you useful advice about how to appear on a radio or television program or do a print interview. What I want to do is talk about the goals of the media versus the goals of the person interviewed and give some examples where helpful principles apply. I recommend several tactics, but the emphasis is on strategy.
THE JOURNALIST’S JOB
Before we even begin to discuss strategies for communicating effectively with the news media, we should take a look at the people in the media and get a feel for what journalists’ jobs are all about.
In his book Reporting, Lou Cannon, The Washington Post’s White House correspondent, writes that many people become journalists “because they seek to have some social impact on the world.” He adds that “the reporter’s view that he is performing a sacred calling can cloak him with an annoying self-righteousness about his mission which ordinary Americans find disturbing. Out of this attitude of mission sometimes arises an insensitivity and a belief that a reporter is entitled to ask anyone anything at any time.”15 While many actually believe that a reporter should do exactly that, we have all seen examples of questionable taste, if not questionable ethics, exhibited by reporters.
Hostility toward the press is nothing new. In a book called How True by Thomas Griffith, former editor of Time and Life magazines, there is a quote from a nineteenth-century etiquette book. It advises the well-bred reader that it is improper to order a newspaperman kicked down the stairs simply because he has chosen to make his living in a disagreeable manner.16
A more balanced and contemporary view is that reporters are human, therefore they have biases. But most good reporters work at being fair. Their interpretation of what’s fair, however, is sometimes in question. Many journalists seem to want to tear down the social order or institutions. They want to raise questions about or challenges to the establishment. I think those challenges and questions are good, and I believe in the journalists’ right to ask any question they want. I also believe in people not answering certain questions if they feel they needn’t or shouldn’t. I believe that people have a right not to appear guilty simply because they have chosen to ignore or deflect a question.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that every journalist is out to “get” business—to find a scandal, whether one exists or not. I do believe, however, that there should be a healthy skepticism on both sides: on the part of the interviewer and of the interviewee.
If the executive understands that the press does not exist to serve as his public relations arms, and the executive is prepared to live with that, then the company should establish a policy whereby, except in highly unusual circumstances, its officials make themselves available to reporters. On the other hand, I know one major Fortune 500 company whose policy is never to talk to the press. When the press calls, the company says they’ve moved. The effect of the company’s press paranoia is suspicion and hatred by the press. It will eventually result in a media relations disaster for the company. There are other cases where, in my judgment, a business is too open to the press and becomes a whipping boy. A company must respect the journalist’s goals and simultaneously mind its own business. If company officials can contribute to a story in a manner that will not be detrimental to the shareholders, fine.
Journalists tell me they are sometimes tough on business because business hides from them and they figure there must be something to hide. Businesses tell me that the reason they don’t talk to the press is that reporters always print the negative and never the positive. There is some truth to both arguments. Business should sponsor more forums or behind-the-scenes seminars so that business and the press can get to know each other. That doesn’t mean that the press is never going to be negative, but the press needs to know what is driving the business world. Business also needs to understand that the goal of the press is to gather information, and the press has the right to report negative news when it finds it. Sometimes the press is looking for information to support a story or premise, sometimes they’re just gathering specific data, and sometimes they’re “fishing.”
The first responsibility of the reporter is to his job. If he quotes some vice president in a negative way and it costs that man his career, it may deeply bother the reporter. He may even lose sleep over it. But it won’t stop the reporter from using it.
One executive came to us after he was quoted in the press and his company’s stock went down three points the next day. He had said some things to a reporter that he thought were “off the record” and they ended up in print. I tell my clients, “The only thing off the record is what you don’t say.” There are some journalists who will respect off the record and there are some who won’t. In general, it’s better not to gamble on this issue.
That executive I mentioned had just been appointed president of a research and manufacturing subsidiary of a large corporation. He agreed to spend a day with a male reporter from a major newspaper so that the reporter could write a personality profile of him. Together, they toured the laboratories, the plant, and the offices of the subsidiary. They became friendly and comfortable with one another. This executive was a “good ole boy” Southerner who enjoyed wisecracking and had an eye for a pretty lady. At one point he passed a very well endowed young secretary, and he poked the reporter in the ribs, winked, and said, “My God, will you look at the build on that little bit of heaven?”
The reporter smiled and said nothing. At the end of the day, the reporter was about to drive to the airport. During the casual parting conversation, the reporter asked the executive, “How come you’re still commuting between company headquarters in Los Angeles and the plant here?” Again, the executive winked and answered, “Because the nightlife is better in Los Angeles.” It was a throwaway remark. The executive thought the interview was over and he was just talking to a “friend.”
When the profile of the executive appeared in the newspaper, it praised him as smart and tough. But it also alluded to his arrogance, sexism, and other off-putting traits. The article ended with a quote denigrating the local nightlife.
Not only did all hell break loose with some stockholders, but the executive also was reprimanded within his company—to his face and behind his back. In a rage, he called the reporter. “You screwed me!” he yelled. Coolly, the reporter replied, “Before you get your jockey shorts in a bundle, just remember that I let you off light. I could’ve—but didn’t—quote you about the build on that little bit of heaven.”
The reporter hung up. Two days later, the executive was in my office for our first session together. “That son of a bitch,” he whined, “treed me like a hound dog.”
ON OR OFF?
What’s on the record? What’s off the record? The problem is, there are no rules. There are many fine reporters who will distinguish for you between (1) material they’ll use only with your name; (2) material they’ll take on “background” without specific attribution; and (3) material they’ll just use for their own better understanding of the issues. Unfortunately, for many reporters, distinguishing between these categories and remembering (or honoring) confidentiality agreements can get hazy, especially when a story becomes “hot” or when it’s a “scoop” and the reporter is under a crushing deadline.
If the material is interesting, it’s best to go on record or not pique the reporter’s interest. A lot of younger journalists believe that the public interest is best served when they alone decide what counts as off the record. Many, many people have been caught off guard with that new theory. President Reagan’s remark that “we begin bombing [the Russians] in five minutes” was made as a joke when a recording engineer asked him to say something so he could check Reagan’s voice level prior to the president’s weekly radio address. By agreement with reporters, anything said during that routine test is off the record. For literally centuries, presidents have joked with reporters during these kinds of mutually acknowledged, undocumented moments. Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, in particular, had gentlemen’s agreements with the press about speaking off the record. But some news organizations broke the understanding and played up Reagan’s “bombing” remark in a big way. If Reagan had realized that the off-the-record agreement would not be honored, do you think he would have made the joke? Even less explosive comments can cause problems. So if you have wisecracking instincts, it’s best to keep them in check around the media. Reagan is a professional. He should have known better.
SELLING OTHERS OUT
A good friend of mine who is a reporter told me about an experience he had at an editor’s conference. A grizzled senior editor leaned over his desk, looked at all the young reporters, and snarled, “You know why so many of you are going to get divorced and a lot of you will become alcoholics? Because you are now in the business of selling people out. Your job is to get close to your sources, get as much out of them as you can, and then print it, and don’t worry about them. You say you’re defending the public interest. Your job is to stick it to the guy who trusted you enough to spill his guts to you. And if you can’t handle that, get out of the business now!”
That’s depressing, and it’s only one cynical man’s viewpoint. But there are people who subscribe to it. And the essence of what he said is all too often true. It’s comments like these that cause many to say the media is a jungle.
NO LIES, NO APOLOGIES
At least part of any good reporter’s job is to get people to talk openly and freely. The methods he or she employs are uniquely his or her own. A reporter can bother, flatter, intimidate, cajole, humor, beg, and use a myriad of other techniques to get you to talk. That does not mean that you shouldn’t talk to the press; it does mean you should be aware of what’s going on at all times. The main thing to keep in mind is that reporters are under absolutely no obligation to print what you say, but they can if they choose to, and you are under absolutely no obligation to tell them something that is damaging to you or your business. Until you know exactly what you want to say and have all the information you need, beware of any reporter who tells you he is doing a story on you and/or your company, and that it will be better for you if you talk to him. First, that’s an implied threat. Second, a good way to translate what he’s saying is that he simply doesn’t have enough information to do the story without your corroboration. Third, he may be on a witch hunt. Fourth, he may have damaging information and he wants you to incriminate yourself. If it appears the reporter intends to be unfair to begin with, he’s not going to play fair later. Business goes wrong when it turns down reasonable requests for interviews, reasonable information requested by the press, and reasonable access when there’s no need to hide.
The press is not going to like what I have to say next: I have never known of a person’s being fired because he or she refused to talk to the press and turned it over to his or her public relations department. I have known people who were fired because they gave unauthorized information to the press. If you can, give reporters everything they need to do the story. If you can’t, don’t jeopardize your career because somebody is putting intense pressure on you at the moment. If you do speak, never lie. If you don’t speak, never apologize. Most of the good reporters I know will respect you if you say, “Look, I’d like to tell you more, but this is difficult for me and I’m not authorized to speak in this area. I don’t want to create a false impression by giving simplistic answers, and you’ll just have to respect the fact that I choose not to speak on this topic at this time.” The reporter may still want to come back to you later to confirm something, or use you as a future source, so it’s unlikely he’ll cut off all communications at that point. If he does, what have you lost?
Don’t ever be cowed or pushed because a reporter is on a deadline. That’s his problem, not yours. If you don’t have your facts straight, or you haven’t had time to think about what you want to say, don’t live by his artificial deadline. “Urgent” or “important” are words the reporter is using to describe a situation which exists in his life. There’s a tendency to believe that the situation truly is urgent and to fall into the trap of trying to help the reporter meet his deadline. You have an obligation to try to provide the reporter with the factual information when it’s possible. And in fact, over a period of time, if you’re consistent, the reporter will come to regard you as a credible source and understand that, when you choose not to give him something, it’s not a personal affront. The bottom line is, you have a job, and he has a job: They are not the same job. Don’t confuse them. There is absolutely no reason for hostility toward reporters as a group. Don’t ever try to manipulate the press to gain personal publicity. It will almost always backfire. There’s an old saying in life: “Be careful of what you want, because you’re liable to get it.” In this regard I would say, “Be careful what you say; they’ll probably print it.”