Media

The Conservative Marketing Machine

Armstrong Williams being paid to promote Bush administration policies in his columns is just one part of the behemoth marketing effort that the right wing has perfected.
The Armstrong Williams story that surfaced last week is unquestionably a juicy one: the conservative, African-American commentator was paid a sweet $240,000 (in taxpayer dollars), by the Department of Education to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Ketchum, a public relations firm, served as the intermediary, contracting with Williams to promote the controversial law in op/ed pieces and on his nationally syndicated television show "The Right Side," to urge other black journalists and producers to "periodically address" NCLB, and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for radio and television spots promoting the legislation.

Does Ketchum PR sound familiar? If it does, it's because these are the good folks who brought America Karen Ryan last year. Remember Karen? "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting." She was the PR hack who posed as a reporter back in early 2004 to tout President Bush's Medicare reform plan in fake news spots paid for by taxpayer dollars. In May, 2004, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office investigated the Medicare spots and determined that they were illegal because they violated a ban on publicly funded "covert propaganda." Lest a little thing like legality stop this administration, Karen Ryan surfaced again in October in her latest fake news story touting another of President Bush's programs just in time for the election – you guessed it – No Child Left Behind.

In looking at the Williams scandal, there is certainly no shortage of story angles to choose from. There is the classic hypocrisy angle, on full display in one of Williams' articles dated May 24, 2004, with the headline "The Big Education Sell Out" next to a grinning photo of the journalist. In the article, Williams – incidentally, a former aide to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – criticizes the National Education Association (NEA) for caring more about "massaging the perception" of the public than about kids because of the union's opposition to No Child Left Behind. Classically satirical stuff from a guy who was paid a cool quarter million to massage public perception on the highly contentious NCLB legislation, while his own web site promotes him as both "independent" and "a principled voice for conservatives."

Of course, pundits and journalists tend to favor the "breach of journalistic ethics" angle. Williams, who regularly appears as a commentator on CNN and CNBC failed to disclose his $240,000 payoff to either news producers or audiences when touting the failing NCLB program as a sign of President Bush's unwavering support of the black community. While a CNN spokesperson said, "we will seriously consider this before booking him again," Tribune Media Services (TMS), the syndication service that distributed Williams columns to newspapers nationwide, went a step further and terminated its contract with Williams last Friday. According to TMS, Williams wrote at least four newspaper columns on NCLB in 2004, but never disclosed that he was on the Department of Education's payroll. How did Williams explain this egregious breach of ethics? "I am a pure entrepreneur and I made a business decision. I didn't think about my dual role as media pundit and entrepreneur." Williams now plans to self-syndicate adding, "I always feel I can sell my product better than anyone else."

Still, as appealing as these angles are, it's hard to ignore the "misuse of public funds" angle. A program called "No Child Left Behind" under-funded to the tune of about $7 billion a year – in effect leaving more than four million children behind – allocates a quarter of a million dollars in program funds (read taxpayer dollars) to pay a pundit to promote the failing program. Congressman George Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee and co-author of NCLB, characterized the contract with Williams as "a very questionable use of taxpayers' money" that is "probably illegal," due to that pesky ban on using public funds for propaganda. What was the official response? The administration blamed the Department of Education, whose spokesman John Gibbons said that the contract followed standard government procedures, but added there were no plans for "similar outreach." So what's the moral of the story? One man's illegal covert propaganda is another man's outreach.

While each of these angles certainly makes for a tasty scandal story, they are all pieces of a much bigger story, one that is decidedly less delicious, and one that the mainstream media has consistently missed. This isn't just a story about a self-serving pundit "entrepreneur," or the erosion of public trust in the media, or hypocrisy, or using covert propaganda to sell controversial Bush programs like Medicare reform and NCLB, or the misuse of taxpayer dollars, or the undermining of the American people's trust in the public sector.

It is the story of the conservative movement and its well-oiled marketing machine; a packaging and distribution system of ideas that has been shaping American public opinion for more than a quarter century. It is also one of the most important stories behind the 2004 election.

While Democrats are still debating whether John Kerry was likeable enough or whether the Party ought to change its position on gay marriage and gun control, they are failing to see the big picture. What they were up against wasn't a poor debater, his Machiavellian consultant, and a portfolio of privatization policies, but a well-established, conservative movement with media outlets, think tanks, foundations and advocacy organizations as well as a host of pundits, journalists, consultants, and politicians all working collaboratively to advance their right-wing agenda (and many of the latter, like Williams, working the double shift as "entrepreneurs" and getting mighty rich).

While the leaders of the conservative movement like to boast that the power of their movement lies in the power of its ideas, the ideas of today's conservative movement are the same old failed policies from years gone by, spit-shined and with user-friendly names. The power of the conservative movement is not in its ideas, rather it is in the marketing of these ideas, primarily through effective packaging, promotion and distribution.

Take for example the Heritage Foundation, the foremost conservative think tank in America today. Paul Weyrich, Heritage's founder, attributes the ascendancy of the conservative movement to what he calls "the four M's: mission, money, management and marketing." The former director of Heritage's Academic Bank, Willa Johnson, explained: "Dealing with the academic community can be frustrating ... This community lacks marketing. We do that. They have an expertise and they don't know how to get it into channels. Heritage is an institution by which they can do that." What channels? According to Heritage's president Edwin Feulner, "We stress an efficient and effective delivery system [of ideas]. Production is one side; marketing is equally important ... Our targets are the policy-makers and the opinion-making elite ... the public gets it from them."

Indeed, according to the Heritage Foundation's annual report, in the first quarter of 2002, Heritage Foundation "policy experts" briefed three Cabinet secretaries, 33 senators, 48 members of Congress and 164 senior administration officials. That's almost 250 senior policymakers in just three months time. In terms of reaching the "opinion-making elite," as many of Heritage's spokespersons were seen on television in 2002 alone as during the entire 1990s. They appeared on more than 600 television broadcasts, more than 1,000 radio broadcasts, and in approximately 8,000 articles and editorials.

But it's not just the Heritage Foundation that markets conservative policies. William Baroody of the American Enterprise Institute, the first conservative think tank and the second most prominent in the nation, said, "I make no bones about marketing. We pay as much attention to the dissemination of product as to the content." What's more, today with distribution channels like Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and Clear Channel, conservatives are increasingly marketing their ideas directly to the public.

Armstrong Williams, Karen Ryan and Ketchum PR are all bit players in what is a big budget, major studio production. Even George W. Bush is just one of the actors in this production. The real story here is about the conservative movement and the ways that that movement – primarily through the marketing of conservative ideas – has molded and continues to mold public opinion in America. Conservatives are beating progressives with an effective marketing machine. However, no such infrastructure exists on the left.

While clearly conservatives' tactics (i.e., bribing pundit entrepreneurs and faking news spots) are deplorable, progressives can learn from their overarching marketing strategy. Progressives must frame their ideas in ways that resonate with the American public and disseminate those ideas through a variety of diverse channels in a coordinated effort.

The hopes of the Democratic Party in 2008 rest on one key question: will progressives spend the next four years viewing the world through the same narrow scope of the past, or will they embrace the big picture and see that in order to change the direction of the country, they must effectively counter the conservative movement?
Laurie Spivak is a fellow with the Commonweal Institute.