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Trump, Broadcast

Journalist as Advocate



One of the interesting developments in recent months is the evolution of journalists into advocates. This new form of journalism combines daily reporting with opinion, a merging of the news and editorial sections. One of the most noteworthy practitioners of this genre is Kara Swisher, co-founder of Recode. A former editor at The Wall Street Journal, Swisher is renowned in Silicon Valley for her close connection to technology CEOs and for her ability to break important stories. Last week I joined Swisher on two panels to discuss the Trump immigration order, privacy and security and supply chain for IT.

Swisher prodded the technology sector into public opposition to the Trump order on immigration, on the basis that it imperiled the flow of top talent into Silicon Valley. More recently, she has pushed the industry to oppose President Trump’s reversal of the policy of the Obama administration on access to bathrooms by transgender students. She is unabashed in her advocacy, speaking publicly about sending strong emails to CEOs such as Marc Benioff of Salesforce, then posting both her emails and his ultimate support of her position.

She told me that her No.1 ally within the technology companies has been the chief communications officers. “They are telling me, keep it up Kara,” she said. “We need to push the CEOs, to get them to go public.”

Steve Rubel, one of Edelman’s top digital thinkers, believes it is inevitable that journalists become advocates because “journalists need to engage social communities to build audience within their own platforms. They will have the media brand name on the front of their jersey and their own names on the back of the jersey. It is essential also to build attendance for their conferences, a critical part of the media revenue opportunity.”

Dan Gillmor, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University and long-time reporter in Silicon Valley, told me that “every journalist should be an advocate and activist on issues related to freedom of expression and on the ability to innovate. These are basic freedoms in our democracy.” He went further in a speech he gave in November 2016, saying that journalists must also defend “our freedom to collaborate and our freedom to innovate…powerful entities are creating a hosts of choke points. They’re locking down more of our computing and communications, creating a system of control over what we say and do…direct censorship of the Internet…there is no excuse for failing to take a more activist role in preserving liberty.”

Bret Stephens, deputy editor of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, takes a different view: “I do believe in journalist as advocate if it’s clear that it’s opinion journalism. What I believe in is truth in advertising. News should be as straight up as possible in terms of omitting bias. Opinion should be as honest as possible in terms of owning up to it.”

Viewers of cable news seem to like advocacy. Fox is leading in prime time with 2.9 million viewers, with MSNBC now in second place with 1.5 million viewers. CNN, “trying to play it up the middle,” said Joe Pompeo in Politico, is at 1.2 million viewers, down since the election in November. According to Pompeo, “Opinion is working. MSNBC overtook CNN in prime time thanks to its left-leaning commentary shows, while Fox News, bolstered by its conservative opinion lineup, dominated the field.”

Those of us in communications must recognize the rise of advocacy, especially in the born-digital media such as Recode and the cable news networks. This can serve our interests in urging CEOs to speak out on important issues such as immigration. It has important risks as well, particularly with the divided electorate, bleeding quickly from a corporate reputation challenge to damage to the brand. This is all the more reason every company should work towards becoming a media company, so it has the ability to push its position forward quickly and aggressively.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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