The Major Newspaper That Rewrote Someone Else’s Op-Ed

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 29, 2013 – 6:02 am

I received an email from Australia-based reader Tim Horan about an op-ed piece he submitted to the Sydney Morning Herald, one of his nation’s most-read newspapers.

Tim works for the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, an advocacy group that represents the interests of shooters (the group supports much stricter gun safety laws than the National Rifle Association.)

He writes:

“Obviously every newspaper around the world retains editorial control and can make changes. Usually this is done where something is incorrect, (due to) poor writing skills, or just due to lack of space. Yesterday, the large national organization I work for sent an op-ed to one of Australia’s largest newspapers. They came back to us and said they would only run it if they could make some changes. 182 entirely new words (original article was just over 600)! Entire new paragraphs, new quotes, new statistics … I was stunned! This was, after all, an opinion piece!”

 

Tim says the changes were dramatic:

“These changes included adding entirely new paragraphs of text, making several tired puns (such as ‘shoot from the hip’) and, possibly worse of all, changing the word ‘firearm’ to ‘weapons’.”

 

 

A monthly magazine produced by the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia

 
I’ve never experienced anything like that; nor have I heard of such dramatic intervention by a newspaper editorials editor. A more typical experience was one I had years ago with the Los Angeles Times, which had agreed to take an op-ed from the group I worked with at the time. The paper’s editor called me to discuss the piece—they had a few words they wanted to tweak and wanted to clarify a few facts. Our phone call enhanced my view of them—they asked reasonable questions, requested few changes, and wanted to make sure we got it right.

I thought there was a chance that Tim’s editorial was poorly written, necessitating the newspaper to insist upon a major overhaul. But it’s not. It looks like every other op-ed you’d see published in a major, big city newspaper. You can see the unedited op-ed here.

In the end, Tim “made the decision that we couldn’t agree to the changes, so we withdrew the article.” Sounds like a smart decision to me.

I asked the Sydney Morning Herald editor who worked on this piece for comment last Monday. She didn’t respond.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced this type of editorial interference? Please leave your experiences in the comments section below.


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Is Lance Armstrong A Sociopath?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 20, 2013 – 4:34 pm

In my review of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, I noted that Armstrong seemed to fit the classic profile of a sociopath.

To my eye, he appeared to be a pathological liar who lacks remorse, is manipulative and superficially charming, and who fails to take responsibility for his actions. But he showed emotion on the second night of the interview, which made me wonder whether my original analysis was correct.

Reader Mary Fletcher Jones, owner of the Virginia-based public relations firm Fletcher Prince, says that I was.

CYCLING-ARMSTRONG/

She writes:

“You hit the nail on the head, Brad. Sociopath. Classic case. The only reason why I know that for sure after watching the interview is because of the books and articles I have read about sociopathy, and the surprisingly consistent way they express themselves and handle challenges like this. It helps them get to the top, but they also have spectacular falls, when there is this collective “oh my god” realization of people realizing the extent of their…illness? Deviance? I have yet to figure out if this is a character defect, a mental imbalance, or a combination of both. At least, it is possible to say: yup, that’s it! That’s helpful to all of us, because we’re bound to encounter a Lance Armstrong in our own lives one day, and at least this interview will help us recognize him or her.

He has a functional inability or significant impairment to experience guilt in the way most of us understand it. Anyone can appear cool and reserved on television but there is a difference. Sociopaths lie, and lie well, and they do not feel shame about it. They do not have the same physiological responses to lying as other people. They have an impaired ability to feel as other people might, empathy. They fail to take responsibility or recognize the consequences of their actions. They don’t show anguish over what they have done. You can see this in taped murder confessions — there is the same detachment.

I think Oprah did us all a service by recording this interview that goes WAY beyond any interest we might have in the integrity of professional bike racing.

Sociopaths can have feelings for their family members and other people. I know that caused you some doubt when Lance talked about his family in the interview. They can express pride and affection, for example. But it’s a different kind of relationship and there are other troubling aspects to it. For example, they typically aren’t good caregivers when family members are ill, becoming distant, detached, seemingly uncaring, or even angry.

One scenario of how a sociopathic father relates to his wife and daughter is explained in The Sociopath Next Door. Anyone who listened or observed this man (I believe he was a university administrator) would feel he loved his family and was just like anyone else, and it wasn’t until an event happened that the daughter realized how sociopathic her father really was.

Sociopaths snow virtually everyone, even family members, because we are wired to think of people thinking and reacting as we do.”

 

I don’t profess to have the expertise to diagnose a sociopath, but everything I’ve read confirms that Mary’s conclusion is correct. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Mary!

Finally, I try to stay away from “question mark journalism,” in which I throw out a question (“Is Lance Armstrong a sociopath?”) without having the evidence to answer it conclusively. But in this case, Armstrong was confronted directly with that term by Oprah Winfrey during the interview. He didn’t deny the charge. 

Click here to see my full review of the Lance Armstrong – Oprah Winfrey interview, including video of one key exchange.


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Will American Idol Reverse Its “White Guy” PR Problem?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 16, 2013 – 6:02 am

If you’re a woman trying to win this season’s American Idol (season 12 debuts on Fox tonight), I have bad news for you. The past five years suggest it’s not going to happen. If you’re a man—but African American, Hispanic, or Asian—same goes for you. The program’s recent history suggests you’re going to lose.

That’s good news for adorable, guitar-strumming white guys, who get a bonus point if they have just a touch of non-threatening facial stubble. 

The past five seasons of American Idol have each rendered a predictable winner—but not necessarily the most talented or marketable singer. And that creates a problem for Idol’s producers, who are trying to keep the flagging franchise propped up for at least another season.

Last year’s winner, Philip Phillips

 

Here’s the succession of white guy winners and their sales history since winning the show:

Season 7: David Cook: His debut album sold more than 1.5 million copies. But his 2011 follow-up sold just 130,000 and failed to produce a hit.

Season 8: Kris Allen: His sophomore album, released in May 2012, sold just 23,000 copies. 

Season 9: Lee DeWyze: His debut album sold just 149,000 copies and failed to produce a hit.

Season 10: Scotty McCreery: McCreery’s first album, Clear as Day, has sold 1.1 million copies—a relative success, but still less than David Cook’s debut album.

Season 11: Philip Phillips: Phillips’s album has sold more than 300,000 copies since its November debut. He also had a huge hit single, “Home,” which sold more than 2.9 million copies and hit the top ten. Phillips, along with McCreery, appears to be best positioned for long-term success. 

Idol’s ratings are dropping fast—last year’s finale was its lowest-rated ever. Yes, the show is facing new competition from other popular singing shows, but I can’t help thinking that Idol is suffering from its predictability. Reality shows missing a sense of “anything can happen” are simply less interesting to watch. 

The 2013 judging panel: Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Nikki Minaj, and Randy Jackson. Host Ryan Seacrest in background.

 

Last May, I offered producers the following three tips to shake things up:

1. Change The Voting Formula: I suspect that as the show has aged, it’s viewing demographic has narrowed. (As an example, I almost never see the 2,200+ people I follow on Twitter discussing results). Idol can use the same voting formula that The Voice uses; the public gets a 50 percent share of the vote, and the judges get another 50 percent.

2. The Judges Can…Well, Judge: The judges – Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler – are nice. Too nice. By complimenting even mediocre performances and pairing critical feedback with undeserved praise, the viewing audience isn’t able to use the judge’s reactions as a voting guide. They should offer unsparing feedback, audience boos and hurt feelings be damned. (Note: this year’s judging panel has three new arrivals: Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, and Nikki Minaj. Randy Jackson remains.)

3. More Jimmy Iovine, Please: Idol mentor Jimmy Iovine is a legendary music producer who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and U2. He tells contestants exactly what he thinks. The problem? Idol doesn’t air his comments until after the voting concludes. They should air his comments before the voting begins so he can help influence voters.

Do You Agree That Idol Has a "White Guy" PR Problem?

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Are Reporters In Hurricanes Heroic Or Stupid?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 28, 2012 – 2:04 pm

As yet another hurricane makes its way to America’s shores, America’s reporters have once again planted themselves right in middle of the storm.

And that begs the question: Is it stupid for reporters to do live shots while standing in middle of a hurricane?

If you’ve been watching Hurricane Sandy coverage, you’ve likely seen a few reporters standing in a stormy area “braving” increasingly strong winds and surging waves.

So are they doing a public service, or is it an arrogant conceit that unnecessarily risks the safety of reporters and their crews?

Chris Lawrence of CNN during Hurricane Irene. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, appearing on CNN, told Wolf Blitzer, ‘Tell Chris to get the hell out of that water.’

When I posed this question on my Facebook page during Hurricane Irene, one commenter asked: “…do you stay out of a war zone or a protest that could turn ugly, too?”

She’s right that reporters have to occasionally risk danger to get the story. But I’d argue that this dangerous journalistic hurricane chasing is less about news value and more about showmanship. Dramatic images fuel higher ratings, and daring reporters receive professional kudos for their “bravery.” Getting blown down by heavy winds, drenched by angry waves, or struck by flying debris has become a de rigueur rite of passage for weather reporters.

Plus, are they really protecting the public by showing them just how dangerous the storm is in person? Doesn’t it stand to reason that viewers might think, “Well, if it’s safe enough for that guy to stand out there…”

What do you think? Are reporters in hurricanes:

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Just how dangerous is this type of coverage? In this video, Julie Martin of The Weather Channel slams into an SUV after being hit by a wind gust during 2008’s Hurricane Dolly:

And in this one, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough risks being hit by flying debris during 2004’s Hurricane Jeanne:

When Dan Rather became the first reporter to cover a live hurricane in 1961, it made sense to broadcast from the storm’s center. The public hadn’t seen that shot before, it broke new journalistic ground, and it added to the story. But five decades of these shots have diminished both their impact and their news value.

News organizations will inevitably continue this dangerous practice until the moment a reporter gets seriously injured or killed – at which point they’ll predictably dial it back. In an era when live cams can tell the story well enough during the actual storm, it’ll be a preventable and largely pointless tragedy.

Editor’s Note: A version of this post originally ran during Hurricane Irene on August 28. 2011.

What do you think? Is this type of weather reporting brave and necessary or just plain reckless? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


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Hollywood Publicists, Fake Feuds, and Phony Marriages

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 25, 2012 – 3:00 pm

At the end of every month, I write an article that lists that month’s five worst video media disasters.

A few weeks ago, I saw a video of a media disaster and thought, “This one has to go on the list.” But the more I thought about it, the more I concluded that it may not have been a media disaster at all, but a purposefully staged “fight” to bring more buzz to a television program.

The video involved two of next season’s new judges for American Idol: singers Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj. Here’s the clip:

Nicki Minaj: “Think I’m playin’? Think this shit is a fucking joke? Think it’s a joke? Think it’s a joke? Think it’s a joke? Say one more disrespectful thing to me, if you say one more disrespectful thing to me — off with your head…I’m not fucking putting up with your fucking highness over there … figure it the fuck out.”

 

This fight may have been real. But the history of fake feuds to boost ratings, movie box office receipts, or record sales is as old as show business itself.

In singer Rod Stewart’s new book, which was released on Tuesday, he describes the work done on his behalf by press agent Tony Toon, who regularly generated press that had no basis in reality.

Stewart shares this anecdote:

“Perhaps the classic Toon fabrication was the story of the thwarted love affair I supposedly had with the daughter of President Gerald Ford. Now, it was true that Susan Ford came to see the Faces [Stewart’s band] play in 1975….It is also true that she came backstage afterward, surrounded by an army of security men. But from those meager details, Tony created a saga worth a week of newspaper headlines, in which our eyes had met across a crowded room, we had fallen hopelessly and permanently in love, Susan had invited me to an intimate dinner at the White House.”

 

Hollywood publicists regularly put out rumors about two stars dating to generate a few headlines. “Reality” shows leak every rumor about the latest celebrity under consideration for a job as judge or host, only a few of whom ever get the work. And, in its most insidious form, rumors have swirled for decades about gay leading men who marry women solely to maintain their “manly” images in the public eye, complete with regularly released photos of the “happy couple” in love.

I’m still confused about the Michael Jackson – Lisa Marie Presley marriage, for example. (What was that about?) But their highly-publicized and cringeworthy kiss at the 1994 Video Music Awards certainly created some buzz:

The Nikki Minaj/Mariah Carey video may be real. Or it may be an expertly publicized fake. But I can’t shake the feeling that some publicist got paid a lot of money to leak the “grainy cell phone” video that just happened to be rolling at the moment their “fight” began.

Here’s the bottom line: Next time you hear a salacious rumor centered around an entertainer, be skeptical. Some of the stories might be true. But it’s a strange coincidence that so many of those rumors occur just weeks before a singer’s new album or an actor’s new film is released.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Should Reporters Be More Polite?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 25, 2012 – 6:04 am

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Amanda Wokurka, MA, a Communications Professor at Missouri Baptist University and Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. She teaches media law, media interviewing, PR, public speaking and crisis communications. Her email is wokurkaa@mobap.edu.

Brad usually writes about how media spokespersons can do better in media interviews. But today, I’m flipping the equation and looking at three ways interviewers can do better – and that means avoiding the sensationalism that too many of their media colleagues inject into their interviews.

Can Manners Exist in Media Interviews?

We are told when we are children to "always remember our manners" and to "be polite." However, when we grow up, this seems to be put on the back burner. This is especially true with media interviewing.  Many interviewers invite people to be guests on their shows and forget the one simple fact: that they are just that…guests. 

Whether on radio or television, interviews seem to lack manners. This is not a childish lost art but very much an application of professional courtesy. Following three simple rules could be the difference between entertainment sensationalism perceived as a YouTube joke and interviewing genius. 

Amanda Wokurka argues that reporters should be more polite.

1. Don’t Talk Over Each Other:  Interruptions are more common in media interviews than anything else. The interviewee agreed to be on your show to plug a new book or discuss his or her views on a policy. Even if a debate ensues, apply the Golden Listening Rule. In other words, listen to others as you would have them listen to you. Let them talk and try to hear what they are really saying. Don’t just wait to talk, but actually listen and frame your next question based upon their answers.

Nothing is more annoying for the viewer at home than to have two people trying to talk over each other and straining for the point of the question. As you’ll see in the interview with Rep. Joe Walsh and CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield (below), the interruptions and combative tone on both sides made the entire ordeal painful. 

The bottom line is this: If both the interviewer and interviewee are talking over each other to try to make their point clear, the audience will only see it as noise and not be interested in any of your points.


2. Remember That It’s Not About You:  Many times, the interviewer and interviewee will have different agendas. The interviewer may want to trap or ask question pitfalls to try to get a controversial guest to admit something while the interviewee just wants to plug their new book. 

If you are the interviewer, use pitfall questions wisely. Try not to get too personal or the interview may appear awkward. Try not to impress the interviewee with your range of intelligence by asking complex questions. Keep the questions simple, open-ended and to the point. Remember your goal. Are you anticipating a “media moment,” or are you trying to gather information? Pitfalls can generate a genuine response from the interviewee but may also create tension – and your guests may not want to answer future questions.

Many interviewers appear arrogant by putting words in the interviewee’s mouth and not letting them choose their own vocabulary when answering a question. If the interviewee feels that a justified response is necessary, they may be hesitant to answer future questions. Begin with simple questions about the present and then ease into controversial topics about the past or future. Do not blindside the interviewee as seen in this Quentin Tarantino interview. 


3. Leave Your Bias at the Door: If you have an opinion or a prejudice against each other, leave it at the door. Do not bring it into your interview. Avoid judgmental wording. The quickest way to lose professionalism is to allow negative emotions into an interview. Take a breath and pause.

There is no scientific formula that anyone must follow. The roles of interviewer and interviewee can sometimes switch from moment to moment and all interviews are different. However, the element of consideration is something that should be incorporated into all interviews. Interviewers that display a basic sense of manners will almost always have interviewees who comply more with requests.   

Think of your interviewee as a guest at a party. Would you yell at them in front of other people? Would you make them feel awkward and uncomfortable or would you treat them with respect? The same rules apply in an interview.

What do you think? Do you agree with Amanda’s view that interviewers should be more polite to their guests, or do you think it’s occasionally part of a reporter’s job to make guests feel uncomfortable? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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HBO’s The Newsroom: A Cable Newser’s Take

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 18, 2012 – 6:04 am

I suppose it isn’t fair to criticize Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO program, “The Newsroom,” for being unrealistic. After all, we don’t expect “Law and Order” to be a perfect reflection of American jurisprudence, or “NCIS” to capture the nuances of military investigations, or “Mad Men” to nail 1960s advertising culture with precision.

But I’m having a difficult time suspending my disbelief when it comes to “The Newsroom.” The show’s central assertion rings false, the premise seems contradictory, and the program removes the true drama that often occurs in a newsroom.

If you haven’t seen it, “The Newroom” centers around a cable news program called News Night and its anchor, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). The series begins when Mr. McAvoy, a well-regarded objective journalist, explodes during a public event by blasting a questioner’s assertion that America is the greatest country on the planet. His rare lapse into “opinion journalism” ultimately convinces McAvoy that he should abandon his objectivity to tell “the truth” every night instead.

Here are three reasons “The Newsroom” is off:

1. The Concept Isn’t Even Remotely Shocking: The show’s creators seem to believe that it would be “shocking” for a formerly objective anchor to suddenly abandon his neutrality and deliver a personal viewpoint. But that story dates back almost to the beginning of television news, when broadcasting legends Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, among many others, delivered strong personal views.

McAvoy protests the ideological nature of his cable competitors, but he’s actually not that much different. Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews all deliver strong personal views every weeknight. They, like the fictional McAvoy, believe that their interpretation of the facts is right. It’s not exactly a novel concept.

2. The “Center” Isn’t The Center: In one of the show’s better moments, ACN’s news division president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) insists that “facts are the center.” I agree. So why, in an episode about the rise of the Tea Party, did the show present two sides: the heroic people who opposed the Tea Party, and the buffoonish and ignorant characters who were part of it?

Here’s an alternative view of the center: Most Americans want our nation’s most vulnerable citizens—the impoverished, the sick, the elderly—to benefit from a safety net that allows them access to basic health care, safe housing, and nutritious food. Most of us want basic regulations that prevent businesses from abusing the law and endangering public safety, but don’t want those regulations to squelch innovation and unnecessarily cost jobs. But most people also recognize that The United States is almost $16 trillion in debt, meaning we’re going to have to make tough choices. That is the struggle that defines our times.

But you won’t find that fundamental question about “the center” anywhere on the show. Why present a truly challenging intellectual argument when you can show old video of failed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle saying something stupid instead?

3. The Show Removes The Real Drama of a Newsroom: The show’s premiere episode is set on the first day of the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill. Within minutes—yes, minutes—the program’s staff already knows the cause, the amount of oil that’s gushing from the seafloor, and how long it could last.

The show’s most knowledgeable staffer on spill-related matters? Yup, it’s the program’s blogger, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), who implausibly says he learned everything he needed to about deep water geology from a grade school assignment.

Drama in a newsroom rarely comes in the form of all-knowing characters who almost instantaneously have all of the answers. It comes in the form of teams of smart people working together—through a combination of contacting the right sources, doing the right research, and asking the right questions—to nail a story. When that unfolds before your eyes, it’s a whole lot more dramatic than watching people who seem to magically have all of the answers. (The show improved on that score in its fourth episode regarding the Gabrielle Giffords story; hopefully, more of the same will follow.)

What do you think of “The Newsroom?” Do you find my review unnecessarily harsh? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Outrage Of The Day: You Approved This Message?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 17, 2012 – 6:04 am

Journalism (noun): The craft of interviewing politicians, transcribing their quotes, sending them back to the politicians so they can edit their own quotes to their satisfaction, and then printing the quotes exactly as the politicians demanded.

Any journalism student who defined their profession in the manner above would fail out of their college program. But they shouldn’t. Turns out, their definition would be spot on.

According to yesterday’s The New York Times:

“The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.

They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters in Chicago to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.

Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree. After the interviews, they review their notes, check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for review.

The verdict from the campaign — an operation that prides itself on staying consistently on script — is often no, Barack Obama does not approve this message.”

 

If you’re an Obama hater, slow down before you take this as another sign of “Chicago style politics.” In certain situations, the Romney campaign does the exact same thing.

Just how pervasive is this practice? Again, from The New York Times:

“Organizations like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times have all consented to interviews under such terms.”

 

Why give a press conference when you can just insist on reporters publishing exactly what you want them to?

As a media trainer, you would think I would like this practice since it gives spokespersons more control over the story. And sure, if journalists are going to let people get away with this nonsense, political campaigns may as well keep doing it.

But my goal as a media trainer isn’t to teach people how to wrest stories out of the hands of journalists in order to serve as their de facto editors. It’s to prepare spokespersons to deliver effective media interviews every time they speak to the press.

People who believe in the need for an independent press should regard this practice as abhorrent egregious journalistic malpractice. The news organizations complicit in this insidious practice should band together immediately and collectively refuse to play ball on the terms demanded by these controlling campaigns.

For the moment, at least, this practice seems confined to high-level politics—so PR professionals who work in other sectors shouldn’t get any “bright” ideas from their political brethren.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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