A Primer in “Ventriloquist Journalism”

Scott’s two posts on his and Victor Davis Hanson’s treatment by The New Yorker calls to mind one of the first and most important lessons I learned from my mentor in journalism, the great M. Stanton Evans. Most “mainstream” journalists are not merely biased, but have a narrative story line in mind when they begin “reporting,” so that when they call you on the phone, they aren’t looking for actual information and perspective—they are looking for a specific quote to drop in their story that fits their narrative. The point is: when you deal with the media, it is not just their innate liberalism you need to be on guard for—you need to keep in mind that they already have their story written.

There’s nothing Scott could have done to alter the Wallace-Wells attack on him since it is obvious that he had his story line already done. There’s another especially egregious example of ventriloquist journalism going on right now besides Scott and Victor’s experience that I’ll come to in a moment.

Stan Evans had a typically great label for this—he called it “ventriloquist journalism.” Reporters have in mind a specific quote they’d like to have from you, and have developed great skill in teasing it out of people. Think of it as just one aspect of fake news. I had quite a bit of first-hand experience with this during my years in Washington, and I got good at spotting the technique and having the discipline not to give in to the usual reporter’s tricks. Often I’d get a call from a reporter wanting my comment on something the Bush Administration was doing, and the question, in substance, was usually: “Don’t you think the Bush Administration is doing the wrong thing?” (Though always more artfully put than that.) And when I didn’t give the answer the “reporter” was looking for, they’d keep asking the same question over and over again in different forms, because what they needed for their story was a way to say something like, “But even a conservative at the American Enterprise Institute thinks Bush is making a mistake. ‘Bush is making a mistake,’ said Steven Hayward. . .” Sometimes a reporter would keep me on the phone for 30 minutes or more, hoping I’d give in. I learned the discipline of never giving in to this trick, and what do you know? I was never quoted in any of the stories that “reporters” like this filed. Nor did any of the information or analysis I had about the issue make it into the story, because background information and perspective was not what the reporter was looking for.

Right now you can see this at work in the media coverage of Stephen Moore’s appointment to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. I’ve stopped compiling the stories where conservative economists are going on record trashing Steve, and every case I am certain that whatever good things people may have told “reporters” about Steve were not even put down in the reporter’s notebook. The fact that so many news stories quote mostly conservative economists—but only very few liberals who of course would dislike Steve—is a dead giveaway about what is going on. That, and the fact that none of these hit piece “news” stories bother to explain differences people might have with Steve Moore about the substance of economic policy. All they include are snarky comments about Steve. I won’t name names, but some of these people, whom I know in some cases, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Everyone likes to see their name in print, and many reporters are very skillful at exploiting this natural tendency. It took a long time for me to come to like not being in a news story, though I do make exceptions, which I’ll explain shortly. But I’ve come to detest reporters so much as a general class that, in a few instances, I have adopted not just a no comment policy, but a direct “go to hell” policy just so my contempt is made clear. I used to get contacted occasionally by NPR, and my standard answer now is: “Every time I have ever gone on NPR I was sandbagged in various ways [which is true], such that I refuse ever to go on any NPR program again. Good day.” This usually elicits whining and protestations that whatever my past experience, they pinkie-swear promise that they’d be different. To which I retort that I see no reason to trust any such assurances from such a plainly biased and untrustworthy “news” entity, and please go away and never bother me again. Happily, I never hear from NPR any more.

There are some exceptions. There were several New York Times reporters I got to know and trust (they’ve all taken buyouts and left the paper by now however). I wish I could say the same for the Washington Post, but their environmental “reporter,” Juliet Eilprin, is a complete hack, and no one else there (with the exception of one Outlook section editor I knew) stands out as straightforward and trustworthy. You need to do your due diligence about any reporter who contacts you. I try to look up stories by any reporter who contacts me to see if I can divine their slant or predominant practices.

There is one other piece of advice I give to everyone: always run your own complete audio and/or video recording of any interview you do with a reporter. Then you have your own complete record to use in follow ups with editors, or if you want to do you own story about how it really went down.

Roll your mind back to the famous incident from 1982 where CBS “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace got caught remarking about low income minorities who signed mortgage documents with adverse language: “They’re probably too busy eating their watermelon and tacos.” This came about because the bankers being interviewed ran their own videotape of the entire interview, and according to the New York Times account of the incident, the 60 Minutes camera crew had stopped taping for a moment, probably to reload the cameras, but the bank’s cameras kept rolling when Wallace made the comment, almost surely hoping to soften up his target. As the Times reports, Wallace tried to get the bank to erase their tape. Is there any doubt that if 60 Minutes had caught on tape one of the bankers saying something like that, it would have been the centerpiece of the story, while Wallace’s bait would never have seen the light of day?

Although the Times story is pretty embarrassing to Wallace and CBS, it is likely that the full story was even worse for CBS. A few years later, I happened to meet one of the bankers involved in the story who was responsible for coming up with taping the entire proceedings themselves, and he told me Wallace tried to bargain with them, offering to soften the story if the bank would erase the tape. They said no, and released that great tidbit to the press.

”In hindsight,” [Wallace told the Times], ”it’s conceivable that I made a mistake.”

Yeah, you got caught. Everyone should similarly arm themselves in all dealings with the media.

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