Journalism Needs a Political Messaging Campaign to Make Patriots Proud
By Robert R. Johnson
It’s that time of the year again. Trees are starting to bud. Allergies are in full swing. And the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner happens tomorrow, likely ushering in a fresh new season of media bashing here in Washington, D.C. You might be thinking, media bashing hasn’t stopped, not since President Trump took office over a year ago. And that is true, but what likely will occur this weekend is intensified bashing that comes from a President who enjoys offering counter-programming against the Washington media’s posh annual affair. Last year he was in Pennsylvania. On Saturday night, he will be in Michigan.
I wrote this column last year, right after the back and forth between the President and the press. But I held off posting it online, thinking their relationship might improve. But given that nothing has changed in 12 months, and with the dinner upon us, I thought now might be a good time to go ahead and say what I’ve been thinking since last allergy season. RJ.
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Nobody has done more for the little guy than the gumshoe reporter, but you wouldn’t know it. Honestly, these days, it seems most Americans think the media is the enemy, when in fact, journalists are just the opposite.
And with the Trump Administration’s focus on “fake news,” the attacks on reporters show no signs of letting up. The news media absolutely needs help. What journalists and their parent news organizations should consider is an old fashioned, no-holds barred, political style messaging campaign that would make America’s Founding Fathers proud.
Nowhere was the need for this more evident than in The Washington Post’s coverage last spring of President Trump’s rollicking speech in Pennsylvania published just above a sad tale about a lifeless and defensive White House Correspondents’ dinner.
The rally coverage was all about the President, every quote from a supportive, energized or patient Trump trooper. Meanwhile, the story of the dinner, with quotes from the group’s leader responding to the President’s attacks and reports of the boring guest list, seemed to confirm what the White House camp may have been attempting all along — to demoralize the press by not only ignoring them, but by putting them on the hot seat with an incendiary speech and an audience chorus chanting “CNN Sucks” while broadcasting live over the network’s air. The timing was masterful, playing out just as journalists were pulling up to their downtown D.C. parties.
But then the media has never been good at defending itself to the public let alone when other journalists come calling. It is true that it is much easier to ask questions than it is to answer them. That said, if news organizations want to restore their good name, they need to field a campaign of their own — not produced by people working in internal marketing departments — but by an outside team of professionals who know how to message in hostile environments. People who’ve fought tough political campaigns and have experience engaging in today’s style of hand to hand message combat would be best suited for this assignment.
What should they create? Americans need to be reminded of the good journalists bring to their lives. They need to be told, apparently, who fights for them when they are ignored, abused or left for dead. Red-state patriots must not be allowed to forget that it was their Revolution-minded heroes who saw the value more than two hundred years ago of a free press, the very same one they have bashed to gain influence with like-minded audiences.
American journalists, broadcasters and social media correspondents should unite to fund a third-party political style campaign to make those points, thoughtfully and in political campaign fashion, in every Red-leaning media market, reminding audiences of the relationships reporters have with their communities and the work they do to protect people from inept government, corrupt politicians, and obtrusive laws.
Imagine a campaign that reminds all Americans, not just those in big, blue cities, of the impact and benefit of a free press on their lives — ending scandal, protecting their right to know, engaging communities, and making them better. Nobody in American history has done more for the weak, the afflicted, the overlooked, the huddled masses.
The media provides value in every city, county and state. Lost or abducted children wouldn’t be found without television and radio broadcasters flooding the airwaves with photos and license plate numbers. Government agencies wouldn’t respond to helpless citizens seeking a voice without bulldog journalists. The plight of neighbors in need often would never be known if not for reporters taking an interest.
Yet this President has effectively hindered and tarnished the media, with a never-ending tidal wave of tweets that often feels unbecoming, to say the least. He calls journalism “Fake news,” but all journalists can muster in response is a dispassionate, if not picked on, “Am not!”
Still, there is hope for journalists but it will take more than just doing the job. It will take a campaign. You see, real Americans, President Trump’s Americans, would suffer greatly if journalism as an institution failed. The very same people who attend the President’s rallies are the first to seek a consumer reporter’s help when their electricity is shut off or their landlord fails to repair the air conditioning in their sweltering apartment building. They cry out to media when their health insurance gets cancelled or their benefits are denied. When the local high school band wants to raise money to get to a holiday bowl game or buy instruments when school district budgets are cut, who rallies people to answer the call? The media. The American people would be far worse off without the media.
Journalism has a golden opportunity to defend itself, but not with forlorn speeches given in Washington hotels. Journalism needs a strong message and a capable campaign team that can help make the case for the good the media does for the country, for the freedom reporters protect, and for the democracy they ensure. If done right, the pen would quickly become mightier than the sword, or in this case, the bullhorn, that today has reporters on edge and embarrassingly trying to not appear as if they are on the run.
Robert R. Johnson is President of the Washington Media Group, and is a 37-year veteran of journalism, political and public relations campaigns across the United States. He served President George W. Bush three times over six years: First, as head of communications for the Transportation Security Administration after 9/11, and then as Assistant to the Secretary for Public Affairs, and finally as Chief of Staff, both at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Johnson has counseled several elected and appointed government officials at the state and local level, and has held high-level positions in four public relations firms representing a myriad of clients and issues. His journalism career includes work as a broadcast and wire service reporter, and producer and newsroom manager in several West Coast markets.