For Broadcast Media, Patriotism Pays
Consultants Tell Radio, TV Clients That Protest Coverage Drives Off Viewers
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2003; Page C01
Now, apparently, is the time for all good radio and TV stations to come to the aid of their country's war.
That is the message pushed by broadcast news consultants, who've been advising news and talk stations across the nation to wave the flag and downplay protest against the war.
"Get the following production pieces in the studio NOW: . . . Patriotic music that makes you cry, salute, get cold chills! Go for the emotion," advised McVay Media, a Cleveland-based consultant, in a "War Manual" memo to its station clients. ". . . Air the National Anthem at a specified time each day as long as the USA is at war."
The company, which describes itself as the largest radio consultant in the world, also has been counseling talk show stations to "Make sure your hosts aren't 'over the top.' Polarizing discussions are shaky ground. This is not the time to take cheap shots to get reaction . . . not when our young men and women are 'in harm's way.' "
The influential television-news consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates recently put it in even starker terms: Covering war protests may be harmful to a station's bottom line.
In a survey released last week on the eve of war, the firm found that war protests were the topic that tested lowest among 6,400 viewers across the nation. Magid said only 14 percent of respondents said TV news wasn't paying enough attention to "anti-war demonstrations and peace activities"; just 13 percent thought that in the event of war, the news should pay more attention to dissent.
Magid, whose representatives did not return phone calls, offers no direct advice about what stations should do. However, the research's implied message reinforces antiwar activists' assertion that media outlets have marginalized opposing voices.
"The antiwar movement in this country is far bigger than it was during the first few years of the Vietnam War, but you wouldn't know it from the coverage," said Adam Eidinger, a Washington activist. "I think the media has been completely biased. You don't hear dissenting voices; you see people marching in the streets, but you rarely hear what they have to say in the media."
Many stations employ news consultants to offer advice about programming, promotion and on-air personnel. Their influence is considered strongest in smaller markets, where many radio and TV stations have smaller staffs and less experienced management than their network or big-city brethren.
McVay sells its expertise to dozens of radio stations that offer such formats as Christian music, rock, country music, and news and talk.
Among its suggestions for covering the war, the company recently told clients to "dispatch reporters to military bases in the area. . . . Are your local Reserve or Guard units involved? Do they have veterans of the Gulf War still at home?"
It also advised clients to find experts in some 30 categories -- including "veterans of Desert Storm," "Former G Men," "Military Recruiting Offices" -- most of whom would be unlikely to offer harsh criticism of the war. "Have at least one expert outside the broadcast industry as your 'go to' analyst," the company said, adding that "a former military specialist is ideal, especially with Desert Storm experience."
"I think there's just political correctness to waving the flag right now," said Holland Cooke, a McVay news-talk specialist. "If you were the upstart station in town, you might conceivably come at this from a peacenik angle by going on the air with the body count, by pointing out we haven't got Osama bin Laden or Saddam yet, by saying we should end the madness. But we find it appropriate to wave the flag where I happen to be" advising clients.
Some of the orientation reflects opinion polls that show upward of 70 percent of Americans in favor of the war. That means, as one local media executive put it yesterday, "almost everyone wants to be seen as pro-military, if not necessarily pro-war. If one of our guys got on the air and started ranting against the war, it would create an unnecessary controversy. As a business, you don't want half the population hating you. So you plant your flag in the sand."
But some of it may reflect the media industry itself, which has consolidated into ever-larger companies in the last decade, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm in Washington.
"What troubles me," he said, "is that the most important part of the system of checks and balances in media coverage has been the diversity of ownership. With increasing concentration of ownership, if one or two big companies are using the same corporate-wide policy, or relying on the same consultants, there aren't effective competitive forces" to ensure alternative opinions.
The pro-war position may be most pronounced for radio stations that offer talk programming. The audience for talk radio tends to be conservative, older and male -- an audience likely to be in favor of military action against Iraq.
"It's counterintuitive for [talk] hosts and program directors to pay too much attention to the antiwar movement right now," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a journal for the radio talk business. "The sense is, if we give too much play to people against the war, it will hurt in the war effort and the people fighting it."
Added Harrison: "The core [talk] listener is for the war and thinks he's more patriotic than anyone else. Yes, the peace people are patriotic, too, but the conservative talk radio listener believes he's more patriotic than the people protesting the war."
In the weeks leading to the war, Washington talk station WTNT-AM has broadcast an almost unbroken stream of pro-war talk from the likes of G. Gordon Liddy, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage and Don Imus. Another syndicated host heard on WTNT, Glenn Beck, promoted and staged pro-war rallies in various cities, drawing unwelcome attention to his employer, Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio station operator.
On WMAL-AM, one of Washington's most popular talk stations, the daytime schedule is dominated by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, both of whom have long argued in favor of war.
WTOP-AM/FM, the area's only full-time all-news station, has pitched in in support of the war effort as well. On its Web site, WTOP carries a series of "related links" that include Thankourtroops.com; Ways to Help Troops; Sign Up to Thank Military; National Military Family Association; U.S. Central Command; the home pages of the U.S. Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard and Department of Defense; the Stars & Stripes military newspaper; and "Email Support to Military." Another box reads "Support Our Troops. Send a greeting, a thank you card or a donation."
WTOP's Web site offers links to only two antiwar groups: United for Peace and Move On.
WTOP news director Jim Farley makes a distinction between the station's newscast and its Web site, which he says is "not a news site."
Said Farley: "It's important for us to cover the dissent and we have. Our listeners have told us we cover too much dissent, but it's always a question of balance. . . . The consultants who tell stations to ignore the antiwar side of the story don't seem to have the same conscience as the news people. That kind of advice goes against the grain of a journalist. I would not follow advice like that."