With the buzz about Michele Bachmann running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, many journalists are wondering about the Tea Party’s power. So, I’m taking a break from blogging about healthy bodies to focus on healthy politics and share a recent email exchange with Tufts sociologist Sarah Sobieraj, Ph.D. whose new book Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism (NYU Press) takes readers inside activist groups’ struggles to get their issues and perspectives covered in the news.
Adina Nack: What is media-centered political activism, and how perilous is it?
Sarah Sobieraj: I studied 50 U.S. activist groups from across the political spectrum, expecting to find engagement in a range of political strategies, but nearly every organization had the same strategy – attracting attention from the mainstream news media. They invested astounding amounts of time, money, and energy into media preparation and training, but were largely unsuccessful. This exclusion from mainstream news diminishes the richness of our political discourse, and consequently weakens democratic processes, but I found that the activists’ relentless pursuit of media inclusion also threatens activism.
With news coverage as the raison d’etre, organizers often approached their own members as potential liabilities in need of discipline. As a result, open communication among fellow activists was often replaced by rigorous attempts to control their speech and behavior. Activists were meticulously schooled on talking points, warned about “entrapment,” and reminded repeatedly to “stay on message” at all costs. In some cases, members were given practice interviews, recorded, and critiqued by their group. This happened in the organizations that allowed participants to speak to reporters; many groups had designated spokespeople and prohibited other members from answering journalists’ questions altogether. This member management stemmed from desires to control whatever fleeting coverage the group might attract. This approach was practical but could also be toxic. One activist described feeling like a prop, invited only to show journalists that their group had numbers, but told to keep quiet and stay out of the way.
In addition to creating internal problems, media-centrism also interferes with external communication. Most groups were determined to reach the “general public” and assumed that the news would serve as intermediary, instead of working to reach those in the vicinity of their protests, rallies, and other public events directly. As a result, the organizations perseverated on media strategy – creating photo ops and sound bites, writing press releases and designating spokespeople – but these extensive media trainings inadvertently undermined their abilities to communicate with bystanders. On several occasions, I watched pedestrians approach activists to ask questions only to have an activist respond with a rehearsed one-liner. Activists were ready with talking points but unable to actually talk. Sometimes media trainings left activists so anxious that they directed bystanders to their website to avoid answering questions.
AN: Given the slim chances for media attention — why has the Tea Party fared so well?
SS: The Tea Party is not among the groups I studied, but my research offers some clues to their success. Soundbitten shows that journalists have an appetite for activism and a clear idea about what makes activism newsworthy: authenticity. Authenticity can be communicated to news workers in a variety of ways: including emotionality, spontaneity, and originality – all of which the Tea Party had in excess in their early months. For example, during the Town Hall meetings on health care, their disruptions violated social norms and created tense standoffs between elected leaders and emotion-fueled audience members that didn’t feel staged. Plus, the activists themselves were unexpected: flag-waving, silver-haired conservatives in orthopedic shoes and athletic socks are not what come to mind when most people think “protester.” The events were perfect fodder for the 24-hour news cycle.
In contrast, the groups I worked with were passionate about their issues, but many of their events felt formulaic and professionalized – hyper-managed by rational-tongued spokespeople wielding talking points (designed to get journalists to focus on the issues) – or playful and cartoonish, which sometimes captured reporters’ interest but rarely resulted in a serious examination of key issues.
AN: So, did the activists you studied just take the wrong approach to mainstream news media?
SS: Yes and no. In terms of capturing media attention, activists face a daunting catch-22 because of the professional routines and standards of reporting that have emerged in mainstream news organizations. The odds are stacked against them. Most of the groups I studied failed to see that showcasing their professionalism – striving to appear legitimate by creating press releases on letterhead and answering journalists’ questions with the latest data – was not an effective tactic. Yet, if they cater to journalists’ appetites – for raw emotion rather than research, personal stories rather than publicly minded-speech, etc. – the coverage they receive tends to depoliticize public issues by portraying them as personal troubles.
So, the activists didn’t approach reporters in the “wrong” way, but there may not be a reliable way to do it “right” in the current journalistic climate. This is a problem, and media reform is critical, but until those reforms take hold, activist groups might consider realigning their strategic emphases. It might make sense to stop investing the lion’s share of their organizational resources in trying to win this battle. It is easy to forget that the quest for media coverage is a tactic for political change, not simply an end in itself.