Have Faith: If the Media Wants to Hurt You, It Will. The Question Is–How Much?
This is an excerpt from Ronn Torossian’s new book: For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations.
We represent some of the leading Christian ministers and evangelical churches in the United States. There is one for who we do not grant interviews with certain reporters, specifically those reporters who don’t pray or at least have some religious understanding and sympathy. If a client does only a few interview a year, why let someone hostile to Christianity or organize religion conduct those interviews? I don’t believe that person who hasn’t prayed to G-d or doesn’t believe in G-d wil be impartial about religion. Is a person who hates the opera (o knows nothing about it) the most qualified person to write about Tosca? Does someone who wears the same clothes day in and day out have the best perspective on designer fashion? Journalists need to know something about a topic beyond just pre-interview background reading or book learning in order to write effectively and with objectivity. And I do think that if you have a predisposed opinion about a topic, it isn’t easy to push that opinion away when covering it as a writer. Bias exists and has an impact on stories. Journalists should recuse themselves from covering certain stories when they cannot overcome a bias.
I have one client, a preacher with a large church and following, including on television, and I challenge him every single time he wants to do secular media interviews. I fight him every step of the way because this minister feels in his heart that people are naturally good and fair-minded, and if they hear what he has to say, he will win them over. Problem is, neither he nor I are going to write and edit the final story, and the media has a certain picture of him they don’t want to change.
I remember fighting off a producer from 60 Minutes on behalf of another religious ministry. The producer “threatened” not to call me again for an interview with this client if I didn’t grant this one (the show had been asking for an interview for a long while). My response was, “Is that a promise?” I wanted him to assure me he wouldn’t call again, but he thought he was threatening me. Really, though, we were on the same page. This particular client is better off without 60 Minutes. We don’t need to do an interview that we know from the get-go will be hostile and won’t score points for our client. When we want to do an interview for this client, we’ll be better off doing it with Fox News or a Christian broadcaster, for example, where the odds would be in our favor for a fairer outcome. At any rate, both of these outlets reach the client’s core audience more frequently than 60 Minutes does.
I had a similar situation involving a reporter from a daily newspaper who had dogged a client, the head of a church, for a year. She was a religion reporter who also happened to be a member of a church diametrically opposed to everything my client’s church stands for. We knew that someone from inside our client’s church who had an ax to grind was feeding the reporter rumors and information–some true, most not. The things that were true were made to sound scandalous when, in fact, they weren’t. It was doubtful the reporter would give the pastor we were representing a fair shake.
In fact, given the tone of the reporter’s questions, and the questions themselves (which centered around his finances and success), it was clear she had already made up her mind about my client and wanted to set about “proving” a set of nasty preformed beliefs she had about him. Part of her point of view was that spiritual or religious people are doing something unethical and dishonest if they are financially successful. At issue, in the reporter’s mind at least, was the pastor’s alleged “lavish lifestyle.” He is a successful minister, writer, and speaker, and leads a large congregation, which he had grown quite successfully. The reporter had a problem with someone being successful and spiritual (and made her position on this clear in discussions we had).
Once she makes that assumption for readers, it’s clear which angle her story will take. (I also believe that on some psychological level it bothered her that a pastor was making more money than she was.) Not all religious people take vows of poverty. In fact, some pastors preach the Prosperity Gospel, a belief based on the idea that followers have a right to the blessings of health and material wealth and that these blessings can be obtained through sowing the seeds of prosperity via positive confessions of faith and faithful payments of tithes and offerings.
I vividly remember a discussion I had with that client about shopping. A family member of the pastor had visited a local furniture store and purchased a few thousand dollars worth of merchandise, which the person had paid for with her own money, so there was certainly no wrongdoing. However, the shopping “spree” became a lead story in the pastor’s city. I recommended that the pastor tell his family that if they wanted to buy things they shouldn’t do it a few minutes from their home, where people could be watching and talking. It’s not a question of doing something wrong; it’s a question of perception. Be discreet and drive an hour away to shop. Once you have “made it,” your every move is highlighted and noticed, and even if you don’t know everyone, they all know you.