In This Episode
How can Democrats break through in today’s media environment? A strategy for rethinking the way we communicate with the public. Learn more: www.thewildernesspodcast.com
The Wilderness with Jon Favreau is presented by Honey. Join for free at www.joinhoney.com/wilderness.
Speaker 1 [sponsor note]
[voice clip] Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for a discussion of issues in the current political campaign by the two major candidates for the presidency: the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and the Democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy.
Jon Favreau: On September 26th, 1960, American politics was transformed by a media revolution.
[voice clip] Answer or comment upon answers to questions posed by a panel of correspondents.
Jon Favreau: On the radio, most pundits and listeners decided that the first presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was either a draw, or a slight win for the Republican candidate. The New York Times wrote “on sound points of argument, Nixon probably took most of the honors.”
[clip of Richard Nixon] I can only say that my experience is there for the people to consider. Senator Kennedy’s is there for the people to consider.
Jon Favreau: But for the first time in history, 70 million people were able to watch the debate on television, a medium that, frankly, doesn’t give a shit about your sound points of argument if you don’t come off visually appealing and compelling.
[clip of John F. Kennedy] I don’t believe in big government, but I believe in effective governmental action. And I think that’s the only way that the United States is going to maintain its freedom.
Jon Favreau: Television forever turned politics into a performance. And that night, the audience judged Kennedy, the winner, he was younger, better looking, and stared directly into the camera, which gave people the impression that he was having a conversation with them. The problem for Nixon was that he looked like Nixon: sweaty, unshaven, a little gray, darting his eyes all over the place like he was guilty of something—because he probably was. It wasn’t a great scene. Apparently, his mom called him afterwards to see if it was OK. The debate was a turning point in a very close election that Kennedy went on to win by just 0.2%. Some pundits said that television debates should be eliminated from future campaigns, with one arguing that they’re designed to corrupt the public judgment, and eventually the whole political process. The American presidency is too great an office to be subjected to the indignity of this technique. Yeah, good luck with that. In this episode, we’re going to talk about the media, which just like the Democratic Party, is perfect in every way. But since this is a show about the party, and party strategy, we’re not going to spend a lot of time on how to fix or improve the media. Though we could easily do an entire series on that issue alone. Instead, we’re going to talk about how Democratic politicians and campaigns can do a better job getting their message heard in the current media environment, with all of its flaws and biases. But first, we’ll talk about what today’s media landscape looks like, how much it’s changed since the Kennedy-Nixon debate, and why it’s tougher but more important than ever for Democrats to find a way to break through all the noise. I’m Jon Favreau. Welcome to The Wilderness.
Nicco Mele: I don’t think there’s a public anymore. The idea of the public was that people shared some experience or some information, and that was the public. And that you could have the public interest and the public good and you could actually make political arguments about what was good for the public. And we don’t have that shared experience anymore, and that makes politics nearly impossible.
Jon Favreau: The voice you just heard is Nicco Mele, Director of Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. What Nicco’s talking about—the loss of shared experience and shared truth—is partly the result of a media transformation that took place over the last several decades. David Binder, pollster for President Obama, explains.
David Binder: We’re in a situation now where more voters are getting information within silos. I’m old enough to remember Huntley and Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, in which their word was gospel, what they said at the CBS Evening News or NBC Evening News every weeknight, people listened to it. That was the news, those were facts, and nobody disputed them. Today, we’re in an entirely different environment
Jon Favreau: From the early days of television to the 1980s, the only games in town where the Big Three networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. If you wanted television news, you tuned in to the Morning News or your nightly broadcast.
[old TV clip] From CBS News headquarters in New York, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Jon Favreau: And that meant that every American household had a relatively shared experience of news and information.
[old TV clip] The award-winning news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
Jon Favreau: In those days, there was also a federal policy called the Fairness Doctrine, which required all television broadcasters to devote some of their news programing to controversial matters of public interest. They also had to air opposing political views on any given issue so that all viewers got a diverse array of opinions. Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
[voice clip] The restrictions were lifted from news and public service programing. The free market will now determine what a station plays,
Jon Favreau: A decision that would soon help fuel the rise of conservative talk radio. But before that, another big development began to reshape the media landscape.
[voice clip] [overlapping voices]
[voice clip] Good evening. I’m David Walker.
[voice clip] And I’m Lois Hart. Now here’s the news.
Jon Favreau: The first cable news network launched on June 1st, 1980, though CNN’s popularity didn’t really take off until the first Gulf War in 1991. Five years later, in 1996, marked the beginning of two other cable news channels, MSNBC and Fox News.
[voice clip] You are connected to MSNBC.
[voice clip] Fair, balanced, FOX.
Jon Favreau: More options for news meant more competition for eyeballs and more competition would ultimately lead some networks to air political content that appeal to certain audiences with specific views and beliefs. And no network was better at this than Fox News.
[clip of Bill O’Reilly] Hi, I’m Bill O’Reilly. Thank you for watching on our very first day. How did it happen? How did television news become so predictable, and in some cases so boring? Few broadcasts take any chances these days and most are very politically correct. Well, we’re going to try to be different, stimulating and a bit daring, but at the same time responsible and fair.
Jon Favreau: This is where we start to get to the news silos that David Binder was talking about. And it wasn’t just cable news. You also had the rise of right-wing talk radio in the 90s. And at the same time, we saw the beginnings of the biggest media transformation of our lifetime.
[news clip] Well, there’s a revolution going on in rec rooms, offices and classrooms around the world. For about $200 a year, they log on to personal computers connected to phone lines and communicate across cultures and continents. Bill Cameron has this report on the growing phenomenon of Internet. [modem noises]
Jon Favreau: The engineers and technologists and hackers were around at the dawn of the Internet age, shared a bedrock belief: the World Wide Web should be free of any restrictions or regulations. Anyone anywhere should be able to share information and opinions with anyone else.
[voice clip] The necessity was to provide a mechanism so that what was learned in one place could be transferred effectively and directly to other places without redoing it all.
Jon Favreau: The assumption being that if everybody has access to unlimited knowledge and data, it will make the world a better place. In many ways, that’s happened.
[voice clip] They found their long lost biological father . . .
Jon Favreau: In others, not so much.
[old computer game music]
[voice clip] This is the Honey Badger. Watch it run in slow motion.
[overlapping voices and music]
[voice clip] [crying] And fucking dare anyone out to make fun of Britney, after all, she’s been through. She’s a human! Leave her alone!
Jon Favreau: The Internet has transformed just about every industry, but none quite as much as journalism. In the 2000s, newspapers made almost all of their stories available online for free.
[voice clip] This is an experiment. We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to mean to us as editors and reporters, and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much either.
Jon Favreau: Their hope was that what they’d lose in subscription revenue, they’d make up for it by getting more readers who helped bring in more advertising revenue. Needless to say, this bet hasn’t paid off. Tech companies and platforms like Facebook, Google and even Craigslist have monopolized online advertising revenue. This was hard on national newspapers like The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, but nowhere did it hit harder than local news.
[voice clip] More layoffs at the Erie Times newspaper as the newspaper outsources work.
[news clip] Protesters are targeting the Chicago Sun-Times today after the newspaper laid off its entire staff of photographers.
[voice clip] At the Denver Post, 30 journalists are being laid off there. Just the latest blow to a newsroom that has shed 3/4 of its journalists since 2011.
Jon Favreau: Nicco Mele again.
Nicco Mele: It used to be that we had a healthy and vibrant local news market that shaped our communities in significant ways, and that has collapsed. It has disappeared in the last 15 years. There’s a Pew study in 2015 that showed that there are 21 U.S. states that send no local journalists, local correspondents, to Washington, D.C., that used to. That’s 42 U.S. senators who never get a question while in D.C. from a hometown outlet. That’s also 21 U.S. states that have no news about what happens in Washington, D.C., about how immigration affects their state or their city or their community, or how Obamacare affects their state or their city or community. And that just did not used to be the case. That’s the story of technological disruption and Craigslist stealing classified revenue, and it’s really unique to the United States. Compared to other countries, our public media is quite anemic. We really are disproportionately dependent on commercial media to provide hard news. And the collapse of that business model is arguably the single most dangerous crisis facing our country today. That collapse has incentivized the remaining media towards some very dangerous habits, covering scandal, and sensationalism
Jon Favreau: In the world of politics, some people point to a specific moment in history when this media obsession with personal and political scandals took hold.
[news clip] Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart announces his intention to seek the presidency.
Nicco Mele: In 1988 in the presidential primary and the media’s coverage of Gary Hart, as detailed by Matt Bai in his book “All the Truth is Out” is kind of a very clear turning point. You can look at the media coverage in 1984 versus the media coverage in 1988, and you can see a market change to many observers and people in the media and political establishment. Gary Hart was widely respected as a serious policy thinker and perhaps the most substantive politician of his generation, an era. In 1988, he ran for president, kind of piggybacking off his primary loss in ’84 and appeared to be the clear front runner. And then got caught cheating on his wife.
[news clip] When he announced for president 26 days ago, questions were raised about his alleged womanizing. Last Sunday, he was quoted in The New York Times as inviting reporters to put a tail on him. He gave that interview in late March. One day later, he joined the actress Donna Rice on the fabled cruise to Bimini on this luxury yacht, Monkey Business
Nicco Mele: And the way the media covered that scandal opened it up to a lot of criticism that it had kind of played a game of gotcha, and had put on the national agenda, front and center, the habits of Gary Hart’s personal life and family life in a way that was really unprecedented for American politicians.
[news clip] The headlines have been brutal. The saga of Gary Hart played out quickly. I didn’t know politics could be so brutal, said Hart.
Jon Favreau: And that was it. From then on, policy coverage has taken a backseat to stories that focus on politicians’ private lives and personalities and popularity, on who’s winning or losing at any given moment. And because every news outlet is chasing online ad revenue, each individual article needs to pay for itself, which means it has to be as clickable as possible, which means it has to be a sensational as possible. There are huge incentives for publishers and editors to push for more scandal, more spectacle and more content on as many platforms as possible. There’s more quantity and less quality. And in the traditional political media, there’s a need to appeal to the broadest possible audience, which leads to its own problems. Here’s Brian Beutler, editor in chief of Crooked.com.
Brian Beutler: So the mainstream journalistic ethic is not like written in stone anywhere, right? Like it’s a product of a lot of things. And one of the things is a product of is a market environment in which big media outlets think of themselves as accountable to a national audience and so need to present news in a way that speaks to all factions of the country fairly. And so you’re never going to have an election where the media doesn’t feel like it needs to treat the parties equally. This is, I think, ultimately the source of false balance, false equivalence. And that’s, I think, the story
Jon Favreau: With the advent of social media. All of these problems got a whole lot worse
[voice clip] On college campuses, it’s called The Facebook.com.
[voice clip] When we first launched, we were hoping for, you know, maybe four hundred, five hundred people. Now we’re at 100,000 people. So who knows where we’re going next.
Jon Favreau: Facebook, the place where a 2017 Pew Research Center poll says that 45% of people now get their news from, has made political journalism’s Internet problem exponentially worse. Dan Pfeiffer watched that transition happen firsthand when he was White House communications director.
Dan Pfeiffer: The DNC was constantly doing focus groups, you know, maybe on a monthly basis. We were constantly talking to people that we called, quote unquote “up for grabs voters.” if there was something happening in Washington, some sort of scandal. Right? Some sort of Republican critique of Obama, we would ask them about it. Does Obama golf too much? Does he, you know, what about this scandal, about Nancy Pelosi purportedly saying she didn’t read the health care bill? So we’d ask people about it and they would look at us like we were fucking insane, like not a clue. 2013, some yahoos at the IRS in a backwater office in Cincinnati do something really stupid involving the Tea Party. Typical Washington scandal. Republicans up in arms, press is up in arms, and my view is: people don’t give a shit about this. Republicans are angry, no one else cares. We do our focus groups, and people are reading, they know all about it. And I was like, well, I was like, I thought to myself: OK, well, maybe that is breaking through because it just it sounds like Watergate. It did get a lot of press coverage, maybe that is. And then you ask people like, where do you hear this? Because I’m like: fuck us, Fox News ratings gone up? Like, where is this coming from? And the answer is: Facebook. Facebook hit a tipping point as a distributor of news around 2013, 2014, where people who were, used to be passive consumers of news were having it basically pumped into their brain. That just dramatically changed how the world worked.
Jon Favreau: David Binder confirms this trend.
David Binder: I started off on my focus groups when I go around saying: tell me your name, where you’re from, who’s at home with you, tell me about your dogs or cats, tell me where you get your news. It’s just kind of a warm up question. I’m really kind of analyzing them just with that question and answer. Some people say that they watch cable news, but more and more you’re hearing people say that I’m getting my news from online sources, some of which social media, some of which are news that pops up when they’re checking their email from their home page. And what we find is that they’re more and more people saying that they’re getting it from social media than they are from traditional television. And when people talk about emotion, that generally is almost always coming from something that they are getting within their friends network—whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, people they follow
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Social media platforms are constructed to want you to engage with content. And when you engage, you’re engaging because you’re feeling something.
Jon Favreau: This is Republican pollster, Kristen Soltis Anderson.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Maybe you’re feeling happy and positive, and that’s why that cat video made you laugh and therefore you shared it with a bunch of people. But fear is another feeling, fear and anger. And when you have content that makes you feel fear and anger, that, too, makes you want to engage. And so then there’s this cycle where you’re engaging with the stuff that makes you feel these things, which means the algorithms serve more of it to you. And so it’s not hard to imagine that people are more exposed to things that are making them feel anxious, feel fearful—not just because the media is covering it more, but because of the ways that media can be delivered to us, are optimizing for things that make us feel a lot.
Nicco Mele: Algorithms incentivize our worst selves. We don’t ever have to eat our vegetables. I always think my great aunt Edna is 100 years old, and she lives around the corner from me and she gets the newspaper every day to read her horoscope. That’s why she gets it. And she doesn’t really read most of it, but she always looks at the headlines. She always gets a little bit of vegetables there with her dessert, her horoscope. And in the way our algorithmically mediated lives are, there’s no there, there.
Jon Favreau: So we’re exposed to more stories we agree with that make us feel angry and afraid, and we get to ignore all the other important headlines that newspapers and nightly broadcast used to expose us to. Very cool. Very healthy for democracy.
Dan Pfeiffer: Let’s say you have a hundred Facebook friends. You do not see every post from your friends. Facebook decides which ones you see based on your previous behavior, like are you clicking on all of Tommy’s posts of his dog? So we’re going to show you more of Tommy’s posts of his dog. But also, which posts are getting the most engagement, and engagement has been heretofore a three part equation: likes, shares and comments. Breitbart relies on the comments piece. So it’s like, you see that piece, you’re like: this is fucking anti-Semitic, right? You know, you racists! And then your angry uncle responds to you: this is not anti-Semitic, you’re anti-Semitic! And so more and more people see it.
Jon Favreau: So trolling actually gigs the algorithm.
Dan Pfeiffer: Yeah. And so that’s what Trump is, one giant troll.
Jon Favreau: But the trolling from the right that dominates our algorithms and our news didn’t start with Trump or Breitbart. It’s been spreading like a cancer for a very long time now.
Charlie Sykes: I don’t think you can explain the increased tribalization of American politics without talking about the role of conservative media.
Jon Favreau: Charlie Sykes would know. For almost 25 years he hosted a conservative talk radio show in Wisconsin, but after 2016, he quit, spoke out against the rise of Donald Trump and wrote a book called “How the Right Lost Its Mind.”
Charlie Sykes: Where do people get the ideas that the other side are our enemies? Well, it’s you wake up in the morning and you look at your emails, you open up your Facebook account, or you look at the Drudge Report, or you see what Breitbart is reporting, or what they’re reporting on FOX—and you get a very, very consistent message that we are in this fight for survival against an enemy that hates us, and hates all of our values. There’s bubbles on the left and the right. But there’s nothing quite the same on the left as what we’re seeing on the right.
Jon Favreau: Take it from the conservative talk show host: all media bubbles are not created equally
Charlie Sykes: Up until 2016, as a conservative talk show host, I thought I had a pretty good rapport with my audience. I could push back on the audience when they would forward things that were bogus or that were false news. You know, things like, you know, Barack Obama was born in Kenya, things like that. And people would generally accept the information that I would send them. That all started to change in late 2015, 2016, because whatever I would send them, if it was a source outside of the bubble—it was from The Washington Post or The New York Times or from CNN or from NBC—the response I would get was: well, that’s liberal propaganda, that’s left-wing news, we’re not going to pay any attention to that. And that was the moment that I realized: oh, my God, we have succeeded not just in criticizing the bias of left-wing media, we have successfully delegitimized the fact-based media. And as a result, we are in the position we’re at now where no matter how good the journalism might be, for a huge segment of the audience, it’s going to be ignored. That that silo is in many ways impenetrable.
Jon Favreau: The erosion of trust is key. It means that even exposing people to news with a different viewpoint won’t persuade them. It makes it that much harder to debunk conspiracy theories and propaganda with facts and information from an objective news source, since people trust fewer and fewer news sources to be objective. And all of this created the conditions for Russian officials to successfully weaponize our own media against us during the 2016 election. The Internet Research Agency, an organization overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin, created a propaganda campaign that mimicked the messages that people were already getting from Republican candidates and the right-wing media outlets. They mimic trolls and memes. They fed the algorithms. They pumped more conspiracies into people’s feeds and further eroded people’s trust in fact-based media. It was a pretty brazen attack, but it was an attack that American media was uniquely vulnerable to. All the things we’ve talked about in this episode: the media’s financial challenges, the technological developments, the platform manipulations, the turn toward silos and bubbles and scandal and sensationalism—all of this created the conditions for propaganda to thrive. And all of this has changed the public’s view of the media’s role. Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center, explains:
Amy Mitchell: One of the things we’ve asked about over time is the watchdog role, which is about keeping an eye on elected leaders. And we ask a question that we’ve done going back to the mid ’80s during the Reagan presidency, that asked whether criticism from news organizations is worthwhile because it keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done, or isn’t worthwhile because it gets in the way of them doing their job. There has been very strong support since we’ve been asking that question in general for the watchdog role. In January of 2016 during the primaries, both Republican and Democrats gave strong support for that at around 3/4 each. Just a year later, we were at a 47 percentage point gap, with 89% of Democrats now saying they supported that rule and the number of Republicans dropping down to 42%. The widest gap prior had only been 28 points and that was during one of the George W. Bush years of presidency.
Jon Favreau: Not great. Not great at all. So what do we do about this? A lot of people spend a lot of time complaining about the state of the media and how to change it. I am one of those people. You might even say that my entire job is now being one of those people. And we should keep pushing media outlets and platforms to be more responsible and accountable and substantive. Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center, talks about when this has happened in the past.
Nicco Mele: I’ll tell a story. Henry Luce was the publisher of Time magazine and Life magazine, and he really was a very conservative guy, and he deeply disagreed with FDR. And during World War Two, he really wanted to use his power and influence as the publisher of Time and Life. He wanted to use those channels to really be critical of the president and to try and deliver some political views. But he was a little nervous about that. This is in the context of World War Two, where the world watched Hitler and the Nazis use radio and newspapers to drive home a very ugly, evil world view. And so Henry Luce gave a bunch of money to Robert Hutchins, his friend, the president of the University of Chicago, and asked him to answer the question: did the mass media have a special responsibility to the democracy, to the culture, to the country—because he’s trying to figure out how much could he prosecute and pursue his political views, given the influence of the publications he owned. And so the commission spent four years thinking about this and they decided: yeah, mass media has a special responsibility to the public in modern society—to the stability, a commitment of social responsibility that maybe other companies don’t have or don’t have to the same way. That the press has a moral obligation to consider the overall picture of the society in the democracy. Of course, Luce hated that. But I’m trying to imagine, hey, Rupert Murdoch or Mark Zuckerberg asking to form a commission to evaluate what responsibilities do the digital platforms or do cable companies have towards the life of the democracy?
Jon Favreau: That’s hilarious, and not something I’d advise wasting your imagination on. I do think it’s worth fighting for more responsibility and accountability from news outlets and media platforms, whether that means changing laws or behavior. But this is systemic change. It’ll take a long time. And in the meantime, Democrats need to figure out a way to win elections in the media environment we have, not the media environment we wish we had. We need to learn how to play the game while we’re changing it. And that’s a question of communication strategy and tactics. We’ll talk about all that and more after the break.
Speaker 2 [ad break].
Jon Favreau: We just walked through the major media transformations of the last 60 years. An industry that was once dominated by a handful of trusted nonpartisan news outlets splintered into the cluster fuck we saw in 2016. On one side, Trump had a right-wing propaganda machine that parroted his message to Republican voters every day, in every place they got their news. Hillary Clinton didn’t have anything like that. Instead, the Democrats navigated a media environment where traditional outlets covered less substance and more scandal than ever before. Where Hillary’s message was often drowned out by email stories, Trump tweets, and conspiracies that were spread by everyone from Russian trolls to Sean Hannity to your crazy uncle who uses caps lock on his Facebook posts. It wasn’t ideal. But the question now is, what, if anything, should Democrats do differently in 2018 and 2020. Every single candidate will face a media environment that is the same or worse than the one that Hillary Clinton faced. How do we make sure that our message breaks through the Trump show? Dan Pfeiffer argues the Democrats need to start by rethinking the entire foundation of their current communications strategy, which is still based around dealing primarily with traditional media outlets.
Dan Pfeiffer: We are clinging to an antiquated view of the media. So my title in the general election was Obama Campaign Communications Director. My title in the White House for three years was White House Communications Director. What that job really meant was, I was in charge of designing and implementing Barack Obama’s strategies to get his message out through the media. I talked to reporters, I came up with interview ideas to do, I thought about which reporters we would leak the news to for maximum impact, I thought about how we would allocate Barack Obama’s time to talk to the media. That era is dead. The communications director on the next campaign needs to be someone who is in charge of persuading the public to support that candidate. The quote unquote “media,” it will always remain a part of any communications strategy, but it is not the end all, be all. If the communications director or the chief communications officer or whatever title you want to use in the future, is spending more than 25% of their time managing the relationships with the press flying on the plane, with, you know, which Sunday show are we going to do this week, then they should be fired. The Republicans have structured their operation around a traditional model of propaganda. Now, we should not engage in propaganda, but we have to recognize that our job is to persuade people by any means necessary. In line with our values—so we don’t need to lie, we don’t need to make shit up, but the media is a tool to get information to voters. It is not the tool.
Jon Favreau: Laura Olin, a digital strategist for Democratic campaigns, including Obama in 2012 and Hillary in 2016, agrees:
Laura Olin: Going around the traditional media is probably the fastest and least hopeless way of going forward. I think it’s investing more in content operations and, you know, podcasts, for example, and other ways to reach people wherever they are, and equal the amount of news and coverage that those established media entities are actually putting out, so that people can understand what you’re saying without that filter, however they want to hear it.
Jon Favreau: Really smart point about podcasts. More on that later. Laura also agrees with Dan that campaigns need to be restructured so that there’s a greater focus on digital media over traditional media.
Laura Olin: I think the communications and digital divide on campaigns has increasingly just seemed a little bit silly because everything is digital now. Like literally everything. And honestly, I think future campaigns might want to think about organizing teams by function. So there’s voter engagement and fundraising rather than, you know, separate digital coms, direct mail, whatever teams. Like talking about functions rather than, you know, old distinctions based on what was happening on 1992, like Clinton campaign or whatever. It just, the bifurcations seem really strange at this point.
Jon Favreau: And it’s not just about how you organize a campaign. Laura argues that it’s about how you invest your resources, and thinks that Democrats are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to digital media and advertising.
Laura Olin: Overall, I feel like we’re massively behind the Republicans now, which I honestly didn’t think would ever happen because we were starting at such an advantage like back in 2004, 2008. But now the level of investment is so much higher on their side. So there’s a statistic the other day that Democrats typically spends something like 5% of their advertising budget on digital and Republicans spend 25% to 30%.
Jon Favreau: So if Democrats aren’t spending their money on digital, where are they spending it? Amanda Litman, who worked on Hillary’s 2016 campaign, and Dan Wagner, who worked on Barack Obama’s campaigns, has some strong opinions.
Amanda Litman: The people running those like state, House and Senate caucuses tend to be mail vendors. So they’ll be like: you must run 20 pieces of mail before you spend on digital. Come the fuck on!
Dan Wagner: Our traditional tactics: people are still sending out fucking direct mail, thinking that that’s going to work, that we’re committed to an organizing model of strangers talking to strangers. It works marginally, but we have to recognize that there have been major structural changes in political communication that reinforced networks of communities within a digital context. And if we don’t build the tools for those methods of communication, we are more likely to lose. What you believe is shaped by what emerges from your community on the Internet. When I was working and you and I were working kind of directly in electoral politics, that wasn’t the case. We were thinking about names, addresses, phone numbers, and how essentially neighbors and family were the context of a voter. Now, your digital context sets the terms of perspective and belief. That completely changes the nature of the game. And that means that in order to convince somebody of something, you need to find an instrument of trust. That instrument of trust can be somebody within their community, or it can be a medium into that community, that kind of gets around that filter bubble.
Jon Favreau: So how do candidates and campaigns reach these different communities? Pfeiffer and I got a little riled up about this, as we tend to do.
Dan Pfeiffer: Part of the problem is the economic incentives for the people in charge are very clear. TV ads: the biggest, most important strategists are all TV ad makers, and TV is a dying medium. It’s particularly a dying medium when it comes to local advertising. And so candidate X hires Svengali Y, Svengali Y is a TV ad maker. It’s what he’s done his or her whole career, and so have you making TV ads. And they all look the fucking same. They are so bad. We are so bad at TV ad-making. It drives me fucking crazy. It’s like there are great ads on television all the time
Jon Favreau: And no one’s really cracked the code on the issue ads.
Dan Pfeiffer: No. And the negative ads are the worst fucking things ever made.
Jon Favreau: The music and the same voice.
Dan Pfeiffer: The music and the same voice. And it’s like, it’s just, it’s so bad. Like everyone—
Jon Favreau: They do, they seem like they’re still from 2004, like they look like the anti-Bush ads that used to run.
Dan Pfeiffer: Yeah. Like nothing has changed on that. Like how do we not have people who are experimenting in new ways? And the thing is—maybe someone is doing this, and I hope they are—but like in this new world of the Internet, you can fucking test it. AB test it on Facebook and optimize it, repeatedly to find the best one. Like, we can be doing this right now, we can be AB testing message on Trump voters now. And lock it in. The idea is voters don’t pay attention until later. That is over. Everyone is paying attention.
Jon Favreau: As our podcast proves.
Dan Pfeiffer: Yes! We should be spending money to run ads to recruit volunteers and donors, and—like Beto O’Rourke, right? Beto O’Rourke runs Facebook ads. He targets me on Facebook, for whatever reason, and like, with one click, I can give five dollars. I’m not going to open a fucking email, right? Like why—but only Beto O’Rourke. I see no one else targeting me with Facebook ads. Right? And so we’re like doing the same thing over and over again. The good news is opposition leads to innovation in how parties think.
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Dan Pfeiffer: But usually that comes from outside of the establishment, and the people who have their shit together in the Democratic Party right now are indivisible, swing left, and people like that.
Jon Favreau: Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas who’s trying to beat Senator Ted Cruz, started his campaign without much name recognition or money that could pay for a lot of television ads. Instead, he’s reaching and organizing people on Facebook, which is cheaper and might end up being more effective. This is a strategy that Bernie Sanders used at the beginning of the 2016 primary, when he wasn’t getting as much press attention.
Becky Bond: Well, luckily, Bernie was able to talk directly to the people on social media when the mainstream media wasn’t covering him.
Jon Favreau: Becky Bond, senior adviser on Bernie’s 2016 campaign.
Becky Bond: I can remember in the beginning of the campaign we would hold these mass organizing meetings and we’d send an email out to people that have been signing up the email lists that had somehow heard about Bernie, and we would say: hey, you know, we’re going to have an organizing meeting in your town, come find out how you can get to work to help elect Bernie Sanders President of the United States. And this wasn’t people coming to see Bernie. This was like hundreds of people come to these meetings to meet with some random staffer like me that they’d never heard of. And I was at one of these early on in the fall of 2015 at San Jose State in California, and all these young people showed up, all these 18, 19-year olds who were crazy for Bernie and wanted to get involved the campaign. And they were very knowledgeable about Bernie stance on everything from gay liberation to the Clinton crime bill to immigration reform. And I was asking was like, how did you get involved? Why is Bernie the candidate? How do you know about him? And it’s so interesting because almost to a one, they had watched this clip on YouTube that was a compilation of Senator Sanders over the years speaking in Congress, saying essentially the same thing about unjust wars, about the crime bill, about gay liberation, about women’s rights. So I think part of it was just simply people started to spread the word and they would watch these clips of Senator Sanders on YouTube. And because we had all these amazing volunteers who were just on fire for there to be a candidate that really talked about the things that they believed in, they would create all this amazing media. The volunteers would create all this media and then just make it available online, and then people started sharing it.
Jon Favreau: Clearly, Democrats need to devote more staff and more resources towards digital strategy and organizing. But as Becky points out, the content of the ads and the candidates’ message might matter even more. And Democrats need to rethink that, too.
Dan Pfeiffer: What are the two kinds of things you see get the most engaged on Facebook? Something that people do that pissed people off. And videos of puppies, troops coming home to surprise their children and wives—
Jon Favreau: Inspiring.
Dan Pfeiffer: Inspiring things. Barack Obama tweets in 2017 were more retweeted than any of Trump’s, because they were inspiring. He picked his moments, obviously. He wasn’t just tweeting like every few minutes, and it was like: in response to Charlottesville—or things like that. But that was how Barack Obama survived the early stages of this move in media was he inspired and engaged a base of people who cared about what he said. For a long time, the most retweeted photo in Twitter history was Barack and Michelle Obama hugging in Iowa, because people were inspired by that. So the answer to trolling as a communication strategy: inspiration as a strategy. Like, if you can be funny, that’s even better, right?
Jon Favreau: Laura Olin agrees.
Laura Olin: I think it’s making people feel like they’re part of something that’s bigger than themselves, which is such a fundamental human need and something that political campaigns can really provide with a good, positive, productive thing at the end, hopefully. And then the ability to actually convert their enthusiasm into evangelizing to friends, to get them to join the movement, and make it grow from there.
Jon Favreau: Democratic candidates and campaigns to deliver messages that move and inspire people. And instead of always trying to get our message out through the old media filter, or with old media strategies that rely too heavily on television advertising and direct mail, Democrats need to invest more in digital media and digital organizing. But even if we do all that, Republicans still have multiple mass media organizations that help deliver their message to millions of Americans every single day, whether they watch Fox, or read a Breitbart story on Facebook. Democrats don’t have that.
Dan Pfeiffer: We Democrats are consumers of journalism. We want to live in this idealized world of All the President’s Men. Or even to update the cultural metaphor: Spotlight. Right? Where there are these hard-working, honest, ink-stained wretches who were going out there and they are calling balls and strikes in the public discourse of politics. They’re holding politicians accountable for their lies. We want to live in that world. We desperately desire. That world is over. I actually think we have to as a society change the definition of journalism, because it means all kinds of things now, right? Like what is media? Like crooked Media: it is a media organization. We inform people of things through Pod Save America or whatever else, but we’re not the same as The New York Times or even NPR. Right? FOX News, they have badges that say White House Press Corps. They are a Republican Party organization. Right? With a couple of people who like to look in the mirror and say they’re journalists there. Breitbart in the Alabama Senate race sent their reporters down to Alabama to look into the allegations against Roy Moore. What they did is no different than the RNC sending their oppo researchers down there to try to dig up dirt, like they are a political organization. As Democratic Party organizations, we actually have to learn lessons from how Breitbart’s operated, how the Trump organization has operated.
Jon Favreau: OK, so correction to what I said earlier. Democrats don’t have that, yet. One of the big reasons we started Pod Save America and Crooked Media was to host an honest, no bullshit conversation about politics that gives people the information they need to get involved in politics: whether that means lobbying Congress, working on a campaign or even running for office. It’s not just us either. There are a bunch of other podcasts and media outlets on the left that have launched in the wake of 2016. To talk more about this new media environment on the left, as well as how to improve the Democrats communications strategy, I sat down with a digital strategist who’s so brilliant that she was the first person we hired to help run our company: Tarnya Somanader went from Obama’s 2012 campaign, to the White House Office of Digital Strategy, to her current role as Crooked Media’s Chief Content Officer, where one of her five million daily tasks has been helping to create and produce this series. Here’s our conversation:
Jon Favreau: So I don’t know how much we told you about this project . . .
Tanya Somanader: What is this? What are we? Who are you? Who dis?
Jon Favreau: [laughs] You should introduce yourself.
Tanya Somanader: Oh, right. I’m Tanya Somanader. I am the Chief Content Officer at Crooked Media.
Jon Favreau: How did digital strategy shape the communications strategy in 2012?
Tanya Somanader: So the best way I can describe this is, the night of the RNC, when Mitt Romney was unveiling his like huge guest, this like Hollywood star that was like finally going to go Republican—it turned out to be Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood comes out, pulls out this empty chair, and we were like, what if we just put out a picture of Obama next to an empty chair? Why don’t we put a picture of him in his presidential chair and say: this seat’s taken? And we were like: oh, yeah, that’s a fucking good idea! And I get up and I’m like: yeah, you got to do it! And the communications director stands up and he’s like: don’t you fucking dare! Don’t, we are not responding to this, we are not doing anything, stand down! And I was turned around, I was like: cool! And then just kept running down and I was like: do it! Do It! Do it! And so they put it out and it was the biggest tweet we had. I was like: oh, what a great reaction, what a great—you know, like classic like shade on Twitter now. Like, it’s totally obvious now. Of course, you throw shade on Twitter. But for a presidential candidate to do it back then, it was like: no, no, no, no, no, we have to go through reporters, we have to have the right people saying the right things and reacting to this moment. That moment always stands out in my head as like: oh, you’re missing how people are reading this, you’re thinking too much about, like, how political reporters are going to talk about this, and you’re missing how people are feeling about this. So what Barack Obama did with Dan Pfeiffer’s help was elevate the position of digital strategy to one that was side by side with communications, because you recognize that reporters are still the main people who are out there reporting, getting all the information, synthesizing it, and really shaping the news narrative, but they’re not the only narrative out there. So you have to have a foot in the door on all the other communities. And so what ended up happening, is Obama started bypassing reporters, because he was like, there are many more communities out there. I’m going to speak directly to that one.
Jon Favreau: Which they hated.
Tanya Somanader: And they fucking hated it! I mean, the phrase that we often use and use and use again is: reaching people where they are. Now when people aren’t reading NBC News, where are they? How are they getting their news? Oh, YouTube guys. YouTube stars are the people who are telling you what to think about this product, or telling you what to think about this news story, or health care—they identify with these personalities more than they do with George Stephanopoulos. So why don’t we invite them into the White House, and have them interview the president? And it’ll be like a much more authentic interaction because they’re not part of the news blob—like there’s no News Corps culture that they’re used to. They’re just going to ask him a very direct question and he’ll give a very direct answer. And we got so dragged by the White House Press Corps, but everybody else was like: this is really cool. And it was really cool. One of the YouTube stars asked him about why tampons are charged as a luxury tax. And it was the first time he went on record, he was like: that’s crazy, why are they charged more for that? That’s something they need. That’s dumb. We shouldn’t do that. And that answer went further in communities of women than anything he could have done that was a really high-brow, with like a reporter from The New York Times—because why would they ask that question? There was other things going on in the world that were more newsy, but that community cared about that. And they were like: oh, Barack Obama, he gets, that’s cool that he answered that, because I always think about that. The one thing I find interesting about political strategy and communications in this day and age, is how many people divorce themselves from the content. And so many people forget that the best way to test anything is to remember, like: oh, I’m human, how would a human react to that content? It’s pretty basic. And, you know, when you have to send an email and do an email campaign, like maybe instead of having the candidate send out a message, have somebody who we recognize as part of our community send out that message. And be like, hey: like I am a woman and I think defunding Planned Parenthood is bad, and I know that this guy also believes that. Barack Obama was really good at using real stories to highlight the message he was trying to get across. And the best example I can think of is the Republican who finally realized that Obamacare saved his life. Barack Obama could have said that until he was blue in his fucking face and it would have never gotten through. But that guy got through because that was an authentic message from that guy.
Jon Favreau: We often talk about, in politics people often talk about silos in terms of left and right, there’s Republican silos in the media and there’s Democratic silos in the media. I sometimes wonder, like, do you worry about the fact that within the Democratic Party there are so many different silos, and there are so many different communities, that even as your campaign, you’re a politician trying to speak to all of these different communities, it becomes more difficult to have a coherent message that sort of binds this like big, fractious, messy coalition of Democrats together because the media environment, even on our side, is so fractured.
Tanya Somanader: Yeah, that’s a great question. But also, I think I mean, you’ve often provided the answer yourself, which is the only reason it seems like so spread out and so fractured, is when your message or the values you hold aren’t as centered and gravity-pulling. It’s really crazy to me that people look at the fractured media landscape or they look at like the fractured communities online and they panic, because the same message works everywhere. If you mean it! The center of gravity for the Democratic Party is what we stand for, and what our policies are, and what our values are—that is a center of gravity that pulls all of those communities towards you. The minute you are not expressing that and making that argument over and over again, is when those start to divide, and you start having to shape yourself to try and map your values to different communities, and you can’t do it. They’re very different. Like, of course, like an African-American community, a Hispanic community, a deaf community—they all have different values and they’re all looking at news and paying attention to stories that impact their lives differently. The gravity of who Democrats are is what will attract all of them into the same message, which is: we matter, we want to get ahead, we want the same economic opportunities as everybody else, and we want fairness. That’s true across all of them,
Jon Favreau: Democrats face a media environment where you have a right-wing media propaganda machine that’s, you know, as bad as it’s ever been. And then we have a traditional media that has a) lost their power as sort of gatekeepers, and has all kinds of business issues, and also is biased toward sort of sensationalism and both sides-ism and all the stuff that we complain about. One avenue Democrats have to sort of face this challenge is their campaigns. The other is sort of building their own media structure. And so now is the part where we become a self-referential as possible and talk about Crooked Media. We came to you—me and Tommy and John—when we were just three idiots who wanted to start a podcast and had no larger idea about what this company was going to be. And you were the first person we talked to, and you had a vision for what this company might be able to achieve. Talk about that.
Tanya Somanader: You know, it’s weird because what I was looking for when I left the White House was exactly what we just talked about. I was like: man, people need to know what’s happening, and they need to know it in a way that feels authentic to how they see the world. And they might not always agree with what they’re hearing, but there’s an authenticity factor missing here. But it’s true because when all of the sources of news have splintered into the millions of kinds that there are, you tend to gravitate towards the ones that feels like you’re getting told the truth. And to me, a key part of it was that on-ramp into understanding what’s happening in the world and my role in shaping it. And so that’s what I was looking for and of course, I was looking at, you know, maybe they’ll do that at CNN!
Jon Favreau: Right.
Tanya Somanader: And then I call you.
Jon Favreau: I was in DC, we were in D.C.
Tanya Somanader: You were in DC when I called you, and you were like: yeah, I started a media company. And I was like: What? That’s crazy. What’s a podcast? So, but then when I talked to you, I was like, oh: but this is somebody who believes in that mission, that the news is something that actually impacts you, and you can actually understand what it means for your life, and actually have a role in shaping it. The thing that I would say that is so unique about Crooked Media is that at the heart of this media company is not a medium, it’s not a particular host or hosts, it’s a mission. And we’re pretty transparent about that mission. And that I don’t think exists currently. I can’t point to another company that’s as transparent about that mission as we are.
Jon Favreau: How do you think a potential media machine on the left—whether it’s us, whether it’s other people—how do you think that that’s going to be different than what exists on the right? So there’s this sort of like symbiosis between—now it’s closer than it’s ever been, you know, Fox News is an extension of the Trump White House, Sean Hannity is like his shadow chief of staff and everything. And on our side, we have tried, you know, Air America, we have: Rachel Maddow’s show very popular, Chris Hayes on MSNBC—but MSNBC is still not a network that would be seen as a liberal equivalent of Fox News because they’re still Republicans and everything else on that. But what does it look like on the left to have a media organization, or a media company, that actually helps Democrats get elected?
Tanya Somanader: Yeah. You’ll hear it. Everybody is like: we just need a Breitbart of the left, or we just need a Fox News on the left. But the problem with the left is they function fundamentally different than the right. And the way we treat sources and news is fundamentally different than the right. We don’t have that emotional knee-jerk reaction, in that we appreciate sourcing and we look for that, we look for like—
Jon Favreau: Truth?
Tanya Somanader: Truth. And so I think a Fox News or a Breitbart of the left is not exactly possible because we don’t actually function that way. Like what you need is a company or a media environment or a medium that goes: OK, here’s what’s happening, here’s what you can do about it, and here’s how you can shape what happens next—a media company that can kind of provide that role. That’s what we need on the left. And I do think that’s what Crooked Media is trying to do.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, I mean, I think that when you said that where the left is fundamentally different than the right in how we react to news and to politics—if the motivator and the prime driver on the right is fear and anger, I’ve always believed that ours is humor and inspiration. I always think about the news as it leaves you feeling helpless, at least on the left.
Tanya Somanader: Mm hmm. That’s right.
Jon Favreau: Every day it tells you that there’s a million awful things in the world, and it hits you with hurricanes and disasters and death and war and corrupt politicians and stupid politicians, and everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, and then it’s like: OK, we’re off! Here’s your Cialis commercial and we’ll see you tomorrow! And I always wonder, like, what is it like if on the left we started saying: OK, you saw the story, here’s something you can do in your community about this.
Tanya Somanader: Right, exactly. And like what a hopeful connective tissue between you and the body politic. Civic action isn’t just voting. It’s like understanding what’s happening, and that maybe I can’t change it in Washington, but I can change it in my community. Maybe if I just show up at this town hall, something will happen. And then all of a sudden people show up—there’s lines for town halls and Republicans, they’re getting their asses handed to them by their constituents. And it’s all over CNN and all of us—you know, like groups like Indivisible who are organizing that. And you’re like: holy crap!
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Tanya Somanader: Actually, this matters, this matters. And why don’t I invite my friend? It is kind of amazing to watch people like, reclaim what it means to participate in the world that they live in. I know people look at the fractured media landscape and go: panic! Because it is crazy what’s happening on the right, and Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and like it’s because there’s a vacuum of information that isn’t being filled by you. And that’s what we’re trying to do here at Crooked Media, is just fill the hole of what the news means to you. And as a candidate or as a party, that’s what you should do, too. And then just repeat your message over and over again and find as many people who believe in what you do to repeat it too, and you’ll be surprised at your reach.
Jon Favreau: And they should be your ambassadors.
Tanya Somanader: That’s right. I’ll offer this just because it might be relevant to like digital communication tactics—that reminds me of the perfect example of the difference between a politician and somebody who is authentically running for the right reasons. And like you can always see it in, like the details, always make the picture. And the best example I can give is, I don’t know, a Reddit Q&A that somebody might do. It’s like very similar to a town hall, where if you’re not comfortable with yourself or comfortable in the space, you’re going to commit a gaffe because you’re so scared of doing something wrong. The best example I could give is something equivalent to this happened to an Ohio politician doing a Reddit Q&A, jumps in, gets the question: who’s your favorite sports team in Ohio, Cleveland Browns or Cincinnati Bengals? Answer “well, I think it’s important to support all Ohio teams—
Jon Favreau: Noooooo.
Tanya Somanader: —because when we win, we all win, so I just love sports.” And you just want to die, right? Because you’re like: it’s OK to take a position. It’s OK! People will react to you if they believe you’re telling the truth. It’s amazing how many politicians just start to panic in spaces because they’re like: I’m not used to this, I don’t, I don’t know what the Internet is and like, if I don’t give some banal answer, this could go viral in a bad way. And if you’re not used to doing it, if you’re not used to interacting with people, it’ll show. And the Internet offers you the opportunity to interact with people without having to physically be there.
Jon Favreau: Right.
Tanya Somanader: But it’s the same as a town hall. It’s the same as walking in a community and just talking to people and being yourself. You wouldn’t do that in front of an enormous crowd so why are you doing that on the Internet?
Jon Favreau: Right. And I think that if there were more politicians who are willing to take risks and not take themselves as seriously, and think to themselves: you know what, if I just say what’s on my mind or if I’m comfortable in my own skin, if I am myself. That’s not without risks. You were going to commit gaffes. You are going to make mistakes when you do that. But you should know that the risk of making mistakes is less than the risk of appearing robotic and stilted and seeming that you are inauthentic and not comfortable in your own skin. And I think that politicians, when they’re trying to figure out their media strategy, or when the left is trying to figure out a media environment or media companies that, you know, we should sort of abide by those values. Like you said, the values of our media companies and our campaigns and our politics should reflect the values that are on the left, that have always been on the left. And that our job is to figure out how to translate those values to different communities without letting it get so disparate that suddenly we don’t have a unifying central message. And so I think the balance is what is the message? What are the things that we all agree on? What are the values that we all hold? And still make room for a party that is super diverse and even messy at times, but to make sure that everyone feels heard, that everyone feels like their issues are being talked about and fought for, and yet we can still all come together.
Tanya Somanader: Mm Hmm.
Jon Favreau: This is great!
Tanya Somanader: This is great!
Jon Favreau: Best interview!
Tanya Somanader: [laughs] Shut up, John.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman. Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal services from Dean Bahat at Ziffran Brittenam and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Katherine Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Calif. Thanks for listening.