Move Over, Janet Malcolm
Politicians and executives will want to read Beat The Press for its useful hints on giving effective interviews, but media people will want to burn this book when they discover it's a takedown of their trade. On page after page, authors Al Guyant and Shirley Fulton portray journalists as a cynical and manipulative bunch who ingratiate themselves with their subjects and then trick them into saying something "stupid, guilty, foolish or worse." It is possibly the most unflattering portrait of the press since Janet Malcolm declared every journalist a "confidence man."
These are some of the tricks reporters might use to "coax information" from a source, according to the book: ask for your opinion, banter with you, and put the results in the storyeven though they never include their own "snide remarks," "use prolonged silence . . . to get you talking," throw "rumors, accusations and distortions" at you, and repeat things someone has allegedly said, in hopes of making you "lose your cool."
"I don't think the book promotes a stereotype," Guyant said in an interview. "I think the book reveals tendencies that are accurate for many reporters, some of the time."
He and his co-author speak from experienceGuyant reported for the Milwaukee Journal and the Janesville Gazette in the 1970s, and Fulton reported for TV stations in Illinois and Wisconsin in the 1980s. They met 15 years ago when they ran training sessions for Wisconsin state employees on how to handle the media in the event of a nuclear power plant disaster. Now they run a Madison-based consulting business.
When the book was published by American Book Business Press last October, the authors mailed copies to more than 100 newspapers and professional book reviewing services. Since then, praise has rolled in from a governor, a mayor, and even a former deputy secretary of defense, but the media have remained conspicuously silent.
"I'm not sure why," Guyant said. "Is it because they don't like this message?" When pressed, he speculated that reviewers are not touching the book because "they don't want to teach people how to evade reporters' questions," or perhaps because "they dismiss our harsh descriptions as not true." Is he saying that journalists are thin-skinned? "The thinnest!"
Though quite funny at times, Beat the Press does not come off as a fair portrayal of the news business, only the worst elements of it. According to the book, media coverage these days is "increasingly negative and sensational." You can expect reporters to be "hostile, biased, relentless or dangerously ignorant" people who "often write their stories while wolfing down a meal" and who will play dirty as often as not. Don't try to hide anything from them, because "whatever interests them is their business."
Chapter three offers snapshots of the personality types that work in the media. For example, the typical TV reporter "craves pressure and attention," "asks leading, loaded, speculative, and fight-provoking questions to confirm his biases," and "vigorously criticizes others but is . . . loath to accept criticism." The average newspaper reporter "fights for underdogs," is "scrappy" and "skilled" at ingratiation, but has "little conception of what it feels like to be the subject of scrutiny." And the Internet reporter is typically a "dangerous loner" who is "not known for writing skills" and "can cause enough rumor or consternation that the traditional [media] feel compelled to report both the allegations and the controversy."
Those damned journalists. According to this book, they say their aim is true, but their only real agenda is to get attentionand to that end, they regularly end up printing stories that are not only not accurate, but "false, petty, mean-spirited, and deliberate character assassinations." OK, not everyone. "Although some journalists attempt to confirm whether there is some basis to the other party's harsh comments, it's also true that criticism is more likely to get coverage than praise."
In addition to an encyclopedia of model answers for pesky interviewers, Beat the Press offers some fairly standard advice. For example, call reporters by their first names, and if you don't want to have your picture taken, "absolutely do not attempt to cover the lens with your hand." But the authors are insightful when explaining why subjects of news coverage need to defend themselves in the court of public opinion. "Saying something careless to a reporter is terribly risky" because, the authors believe, this game has rules. "Plumbers operate under more laws than reporters."
At times, the book paints an extreme picture of an industry run amok. "Some reporters simply don't understand the impact of the immense power of the tools . . . they wield daily. . . . When used carelessly, these become more like weapons than tools, causing severe and irreparable damage to people and institutions." Indeed, reporters "have the power to trash people on a universal scale at the speed of an electronic signal."
Guyant realizes that reporters who abuse their power represent a minority of the profession. But he compares the severity of the potential damage to the 30 minutes he spent under fire during nine months of service in Vietnam. "When reporters only make a few mistakes, it doesn't mean they don't do a lot of harm." The authors view libel suits as a poor recourse for subjects who have been falsely portrayed, because proving actual malice and reckless disregard for the truth is "next to impossible."
Of course, reporters have no lock on bad behavior. Guyant acknowledges that PR techniques can also be used for telling lies, such as "making it sound like they're going to make power plants cleaner, when they're going to get dirtier." Nevertheless, he says, being given a chance to get your point across effectively is an "inalienable right" when reporters wield the combined power of prosecutor, judge, and jury. "If you believe a person has a right to counsel and to defend himself in the court of law," he says, "then you should believe a person has the same rights in the court of public opinion."
Guyant does not want to sound sanctimonious. "There are some tricks I used to employ when I was an investigative reporter that I'm not proud of now," he explains. For example, when he was working for the Milwaukee Journal in 1970, he was assigned to cover a public high school where white and black gangs were fighting in the halls. He needed information, he says, so he lied to the principal. "I told him, 'I'm just about to file a story about a multiple rape and stabbing and I want to get your view.' There was no such story, but I lied and got an accurate story that no one else in the city got."
When Guyant quit journalism to work for the state of Wisconsin in 1976, he was still idealistic about the profession. But he remembers that at the time, a colleague who had made the same move told him, "You'll be surprised how you see the media when you're looking back at it." Looking back, Guyant says, "He was so right."
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