How the Media Really Works

Cato Institute Vice President of Communications Khristine Brookes joins us to discuss the ever-changing world of news and media.

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Cato Institute Vice President of Communications Khristine Brookes joins us to discuss the ever-changing world of news and media. How has social media changed the way we consume news? Are traditional news sources eventually going to die out?

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Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Christine Brooks. She’s the Vice President of Communications here at the Cato Institute.
How does one end up in charge of communications at the Washington DC-based Cato Institute?

Khristine Brookes: Wow. Well, you start in Idaho, where normal people live. It was an evolution, because when I first came here, I was a journalism major [00:00:30] in college, and I really thought I wanted to be a reporter, so I came to Washington thinking, “Of course, I’m just going to walk into the Washington Post, and they’re going to say, ‘Okay, you’re hired.’” And then I found out two things. I found out that it really doesn’t work that way. You have to do a million internships, and it also didn’t pay very well at the time. Instead, I walked up to Capitol Hill, where the pay was only slightly better, but it seemed like there were young, fun people working there, and so I got into politics.

Trevor Burrus: We in DC, a lot of people move between jobs. They go from the policy world, from being [00:01:00] a legislative aid of some sort to being in a think tank, and maybe being back on the Hill. What does that kind of communications job cycle look like?

Khristine Brookes: Well, communications jobs, I would say, are … If you are a policy person, you’re going to go to Capitol Hill, you’re going to want to be a legislative correspondent, a legislative assistant. That gets you deep in the weeds of policy making, and I never thought I was smart enough for that. If you’re in communications, you get to be kind of a mile wide and an inch deep. You’re doing a lot of different things. Any particular issue [00:01:30] that’s up on that day, you’re going to be handling that, just to the extent that the press is interested in it, which means not terribly much. That’s kind of the communications training, and you learn more about messaging. You know, you’ve got the 10 bills before Congress, but the press is going to be interested in about five words of those. Which five words do you pick? How do you get that reporter to open your email, and actually look at it and read it?
Those are the sort of things you learn kind of in the communications field, and then when I moved from being a press secretary on Capitol Hill over [00:02:00] to the think tank world, you have to understand about trying to get a reporter’s attention when you are not a policy maker. At least when you’re on Capitol Hill, and you’re working for a member of Congress, you’re working for a policy maker. You’re working for someone who can actually introduce legislation and change the laws in America. When you’re working at a think tank, you’re just trying to appeal to those policy makers to do what you’d like them to do. I’d say it’s a little bit tougher pull.

Aaron Powell: That relationship between the communications person, whether [00:02:30] you’re working on the Hill or working for a think tank, and the press, how much of that is proactive versus reactive? Is it that the press, there’s something that the press is suddenly interested in, and your job is then figure out how to talk to them in a way that’s going to promote whatever messages you want to promote? Or are you creating interest among the press in issues?

Khristine Brookes: Well, in a think tank, you really have to do both. I mean, you have to be a part of the daily news cycle, because the press [00:03:00] only has so big an attention span, and they all tend to chase the shiny object, which is usually Trump’s Twitter feed, so you have to be aware of that, and try to fit in what you’re trying to get at, your messages for the day, like all this great research we had on immigration from Alex Nowrasteh. There are various different points in a news cycle that we might put something up by Alex that might be grabbed by a reporter, or a TV news anchor, or something like that, so we kind of have to be watching the news to proactively put those messages out, [00:03:30] but then we also do have to be reactive. If a reporter calls and wants a comment on the tax bill, we need to be able to provide it, because we want them to look at the Cato Institute as a source for that kind of data.
You have to do both the reactive and the proactive. To a certain extent, I wish we could play a larger role in guiding what the press is interested in, because these days, it is the shiny objects more than substantive policy, but you have to find a way to make those two work together.

Trevor Burrus: Has that changed, what [00:04:00] the press is interested in, during your time in Washington?

Khristine B.: Oh, yes.

Trevor Burrus: I mean, Trump is a big change.

Khristine Brookes: But even before that. You used to have one cable news outlet, and in my previous job, before I worked at the Cato Institute, I was at the Heritage Foundation for 10 years, mostly doing broadcast media. That was about the time that Fox News came on the scene. Prior to that, you had CNN, and that’s all you had, and you had a Clinton Administration. Bill Clinton. Mostly, CNN was interested in having people on from the administration to talk about what the administration was doing, and [00:04:30] if they were going to have an opposing voice, it was going to be someone from Capitol Hill. It was going to be a, comparatively to now, a fairly substantive policy debate.
But then Fox News came on the scene. At first, I thought, “Oh, this is great. We have an opposing voice, and they put lots of people from the Heritage Foundation on.” They were still talking policy, to a certain extent. But then Fox made a discovery, that if you want people to watch TV news in the evening, you have to disguise this news as entertainment, or disguise the entertainment as news. I’m not sure which way it went. [00:05:00] You had Bill O’Reilly becoming more and more of kind of a … I don’t want to say a carny, but kind of just a loudmouth entertainer, and he’d get on, he’d yell at policy makers and say, “You know, I’m talking for the people.” People found that very entertaining, and suddenly you went from Larry King Live being the most watched show on cable news, with slightly over a million viewers, to suddenly four million people watching Bill O’Reilly. That kind of worked for Fox, and then you had MSNBC and CNN [00:05:30] think, “Huh, well, media’s a business, and if we want to draw in viewers, how do we make it more entertaining?” I think that’s when we kind of saw news take on a far more entertainment perspective.

Aaron Powell: The examples that you just gave of that were cable news, but does that same thing play out to the same extent or at all in, say, print journalism?

Khristine Brookes: I think less so, although if you’ve watched the evolution of newspapers, which I’m sure you guys [00:06:00] have watched … I mean, you still have about 20% to 25%- actually, 25% may be high- about 20% of the American population getting its news from a traditional newspaper, and you’ve seen a lot of newspapers going under, their advertising sales just aren’t there. But I don’t see that newspapers have really changed their content. They’ve gotten shorter. You used to have a news story that may start on page one and jump to page two. [00:06:30] USA Today, you may pick it up, and what you see on page one, that’s the whole thing. That’s the whole story, about 10 inches of news space. I think the stories have gotten shorter, but substance-wise, I think you still find news on the news pages, entertainment on the entertainment pages. Maybe the entertainment pages have gotten a little bit bigger, but certainly the Washington Post reduced the size of its food section and reduced the size of its sports section, but its news section is still pretty darn big. I don’t think you see that to the extent [00:07:00] in print.

Trevor Burrus: When it comes to the producers of shows on Fox News or MSNBC, any of the other … You know, PBS News Hour, what are they looking for? I mean, they’re in this news cycle, which is the … Every day, if you’re producing a show, that would seem to be-

Aaron Powell: A lot of work?

Trevor Burrus: A lot of work, and a lot of stress, and they might call Cato, or Heritage, or Center for American Progress, and, “Tonight we have a story.” What is the mentality of the producers for those shows?

Khristine Brookes: Well, [00:07:30] I mean, those news producers are generally fairly young, between the age of maybe 25 and 30. Most of them have probably been working in the news business for two to three years, so not very long. They’re looking for someone who can get a point across very quickly, and very succinctly, and also from a very distinct perspective. We want black versus white, blue versus red. We want very distinct sides, which is where Libertarians sometimes [00:08:00] suffer, because a lot of times we’re allied with Democrats, sometimes we’re allied with conservatives, but we’re not always as black and white as cable news audiences would want.
We’re asking them to accept a little bit more explanation, a little bit more nuance in an argument, perhaps a little more substance in an argument, and these 25, 28-year-old producers just can’t comprehend that. They just, “Do you hate immigration, or do you not hate immigration? Do you hate Trump’s foreign policy? Do you not hate Trump’s foreign policy? I don’t want you having [00:08:30] to explain anything. Just say yes or no.” That’s kind of what they’re looking for.
Now, you mentioned two examples. That’s what I’d say the Fox News Channel and CNN would be looking for. PBS, especially the News Hour, they have the time to be a little bit more nuanced. They also have an audience that’s older, and maybe not looking for the quick hit. Maybe looking for a little bit more substance in what they watch, so I like the News Hour. I think it’s a good place to actually see news. There’s a lot of criticism that, “Oh, it’s so left wing.” I don’t know that it’s so left wing. I mean, I think they get both sides on. We’ve been on it quite a bit, and I think [00:09:00] it’s a good spot.

Aaron Powell: That age of viewership is interesting to me, because it seems like so much of what we think about as the media and the stories comes out of cable news, and the cable news drives a lot of it. It certainly seems to drive our current White House resident quite a lot. But every now and then, there will be like, “Here’s the listener demographics of cable news.” And it’s always shocking just how old cable news viewers are. The median age of a Fox News viewer was [00:09:30] north of 65 or something like that. If cable news is kind of as important in the zeitgeist, but it’s so overwhelmingly watched by much, much older Americans, what sort of effect is that having, and how does that impact the way that younger people think about the news or get the news?

Khristine Brookes: Well, one thing you have to remember about those older people that are watching cable news all the time, those people also have a much higher percentage of voter turnout. These people are watching the news, but they’re also [00:10:00] engaged in the political process to a much greater extent than perhaps millennials are. Now, I do have some hope for millennials, and part of it is stuff that I’ve learned from you guys. Millennials are listening to podcasts. They’re listening to long podcasts. They’re listening to deep podcasts. Maybe they are getting a lot more interested in deep information than I think they are.
But back to your question on cable news-

Trevor Burrus: I’m just going to pop in here and say that if you have hope for millennials after listening to me, I have not been doing my job.

Khristine Brookes.: Yeah. I mean, I kind of go back [00:10:30] and forth on that, because I have met some millennials, especially in the Cato intern program, that are really smart. They’re not just social media, 140 characters, short attention span. There’s hope for our future, but yeah. The older viewers on cable news, and the fact that cable news does tend to drive the news agenda, you’re still talking about a very small percentage of the population. Maybe it’s amount of time watched, as opposed to [00:11:00] sheer numbers, because you’ve still got about seven to nine million people watching ABC, NBC, CBS evening news broadcasts, but they’re only watching it for … The whole program is only half an hour, maybe 15 minutes worth of news, and the average watching time for these people is about 12 minutes. If you just have people watching network news and they’re not watching anything else, they’re really not getting very much news. Cable news, they tend to tune in for a lot longer, so they’re older people, but they do tend to be more politically engaged and tune in to the news [00:11:30] for a lot longer, so they’re probably more aware.
I saw a figure recently. In 1985, if you showed people a picture of Dan Rather, who at the time was the anchor of the CBS Evening News, nearly 50% of the American population knew who that was. A few years later, when you showed people a picture of Brian Williams, only about 23% of the people knew that he was the hottest news anchor on network TV at the time. People’s viewing choices have changed so much. They may still be getting a very good diet of substantive news. They’re just not getting it [00:12:00] from TV as much anymore.

Aaron Powell: This question of how Libertarians fit into all this … It is true that DC is primed to think in red versus blue, and so the question of, “Well, are you liberal or conservative?” And it’s, “No.” I know that that question comes up a lot, and reporters ask that question a lot, but has that changed over time? Are reporters generally [00:12:30] more aware of libertarianism than they used to be? Do they get that nuance more than they used to?

Khristine Brookes: I really do think so, and when I have to … We do a lot in the media department here. We do a lot of emails to reporters, being as polite as we can, saying, “Oh, you know, you called us conservative. We’re not conservative, and this is why.” But it seems to me that media outlets, and maybe the reporters themselves know, but the media outlets don’t give their audience enough credit for knowing the difference between a conservative, a Libertarian, and a liberal, and some various other ideologies [00:13:00] that are out there. I do think people, the general audience, is far more aware now of the differences between a conservative and libertarian, but the reporters, or the owners, or the producers, or whoever’s actually deciding what gets to go on the air, don’t give their audience enough credit for understanding these nuances. But I am finding probably just over the last five years or so that reporters do seem to be a lot more cognizant of the differences, and I think that’s a good change, but we have more work to do.

Trevor Burrus: You mentioned the [00:13:30] owners of media, and a lot of narratives, especially from, I think, younger people, maybe Bernie people, but also some Libertarians would talk about the corporate-controlled media, and how they dictate the message, and how it’s all coming from the top. Do you think that that is true, or to what extent do you think that’s true?

Khristine Brookes: At some news organizations, I would say yes. I think that Steve Bannon, when he ran Breitbart, probably [00:14:00] made it pretty well-known what he thought the viewpoint of every single news article should be, and I think a lot of the reporters there were happy to provide that. At Fox, Roger Ailes set a news agenda. I knew a lot of producers there. I don’t think that there was a daily instructive, “This is who you will put on the air, and this is the point of view you’ll put on the air.” But certainly he was a big personality and did insinuate a lot of what he thought the news coverage should be. [00:14:30] CNN I think has tried to stay very true to a straight news broadcast, but certainly if you have someone with more liberal leanings at the top of the organization, the people that he hires down below him are probably going to be more ideologically inclined toward his point of view. He may not be instructing them, “This is how you have to report things,” but he’s certainly hiring people who he knows shares those viewpoints. That’s probably a little bit more common [00:15:00] than just daily instructions on what you will put on the air.

Trevor Burrus: What do you see in the difference between the, broadly speaking, liberal media world, and conservative media world? Is it kind of just they’re the same, MSNBC is the same as Fox? They’re opinion shows of people shouting at people?

Khristine Brookes: Yeah.

Trevor Burrus: Do the producers treat us the same when they call us from those two? Is it sort of-

Khristine Brookes: Yeah. I mean, the producers-

Trevor Burrus: Or is there a meaningful difference?

Khristine Brookes: The producers do treat us the same. I mean, there’s been a few times that we’ve [00:15:30] gotten calls requesting guests who have a conservative viewpoint on foreign policy, because, “Oh, hey, we just used you on tax policy last week, and you were a little bit more conservative on the tax policy, so, hey, can you come on the show and argue in favor of more troops in Iraq?” I’m like, “No. We can’t.” Then you have to get into the whole conversation of what the differences are between Libertarians and conservatives. But yeah, when producers call us, they treat us pretty much the same across the [00:16:00] board.
I would say MSNBC especially watched Fox’s success and said, “Okay, well, let’s try to mimic that and do that.” Rachel Maddow has been extremely successful. There was, in fact, just last June, I think, she eclipsed the evening Fox lineup, whoever they had on at the time, after they kicked O’Reilly off the air. It took them a long time, though, because initially I thought they were viewing Fox as, “They’re only putting one point of view on the air, and that’s working for them, so let’s do that.” But [00:16:30] really, that’s not what Fox did. They put both viewpoints on the air. The dominant viewpoint was generally the conservative viewpoint, but there was always a liberal on for them to argue with. MSNBC was just putting liberals on, and I don’t think that’s what people wanted to see.
Slowly, they started understanding that if Rachel was going to be really good, she needed to have a good … Not just a weak conservative to argue with, because she’s very smart. She needed a strong conservative to argue with. They started doing more debate segments, which I think is what is more entertaining to the audience, and that started to draw in viewers.

Aaron Powell: [00:17:00] Why is it that it seems so … The news outlets that we tend to associate with really high-quality journalism, so Washington Post, and New York Times, also are predominantly left of center? I mean, maybe not self-consciously the way that Fox or MSNBC has its viewpoint and strives to hammer it home, but the [00:17:30] reporters overwhelmingly identify as Democrats or progressives. The news coverage tends, the stories they tend to cover, and so on and so forth, whereas the predominantly self-consciously are more conservative news outlets tend to be typically of lower quality? Is there a reason for that? Is it accidental?

Khristine Brookes: It’s interesting, because I’ve pondered that myself so many times. It’s like, “Okay. [00:18:00] The Washington Post is quality journalism.” I think The Economist is very quality journalism as well, and they tend to be, I think, far more centrist. But news outlets that have been owned by and run by conservatives, Newsmax comes to mind, that is not usually associated with high-quality journalism. Breitbart is certainly not associated with high-quality journalism at all. Is it because they don’t want to be, or is it because they’ve recognized that high-quality journalism sometimes isn’t the [00:18:30] best way to make money? I mean, the Washington Post, for all of its high-quality journalism, did have to get rescued by Jeff Bezos, because they weren’t selling advertising or newspapers to the extent that they wanted to be.
I think that there’s a choice being made between, “Okay, I’m going to have journalism that I can sell to the masses, that will make me lots of money,” and maybe that’s not what we would consider the highest quality journalism, and organizations that want to feed you more boring stuff, which honestly, really good news is generally [00:19:00] sort of boring. They need a little bit of subsidy from a guy like Jeff Bezos, who is a news fan himself, and I’m very glad that he bought the Washington Post. I think he’s done exceptionally good work with it. Their facility now, and the multimedia events they’re having, I think he’s really moving that news organization into the next century, so I think it’s a good thing, but they were lucky. I mean, if he hadn’t come along to kind of bail them out, they were in a situation that they were going to have to change their model [00:19:30] significantly.

Trevor Burrus: Is that something we should be concerned with, that many of these reporters are liberal?

Khristine Brookes: If they’re good reporters, no. I really don’t mind that a reporter has personal viewpoints if they’re still a good reporter. I had a professor when I was in journalism school who was one of the best professors I ever had, and he asked us the beginning of the semester if we could guess what persuasion he was by the end, and we never could. He turned out to be a total leftie. That was fine. He was a great [00:20:00] instructor, so I don’t mind if reporters have a viewpoint. Good reporters know how to keep that out of their reporting. If they’re not keeping it out of their reporting, that’s a problem, and I think that fortunately, with social media being what it is today, they get called out on it significantly. But yeah, I don’t mind that, as long as it’s still good reporting.

Aaron Powell: How does bias work in reporting generally? Because lots of people accuse the press or the media of being biased. We’re recording this on the [00:20:30] day that the president is supposed to be unveiling his first, probably annual, Fake News Awards.

Trevor Burrus: Still to be announced.

Aaron Powell: Still to be announced. He’s probably forgotten about it, but there’s a sense in which especially the establishment media of the coasts just exists to advance the interests of the Clinton family or some such, which I don’t think is quite the way that media bias works, but so is there [00:21:00] such a thing as media bias, or left wing media bias in establishment media? And if there is, how does it function, and how is it different from the popular conception?

Khristine Brookes: I think media bias functions mostly as choice of stories to cover. I mean, if you turn on CNN on any given day, and you see what stories they’ve chosen to cover, it’s probably going to be things that are critical of Donald Trump, or things that they believe would make Donald [00:21:30] Trump look bad. Now, in approaching those stories, they may take a very balanced approach to it. They may have someone on from the Trump Administration, and a Trump critic on, but the fact that they have chosen to cover that story, that’s where the bias comes in. It’s not so much that you have the anchor shouting down the conservative guest, saying, “You’re wrong,” and not letting him finish. I mean, that does happen, but I don’t really think that that’s the way bias manifests itself in the truly most damaging way. [00:22:00] It’s that the stories that they’re choosing to cover, they’re choosing to cover them for a dedicated purpose, to make the administration look bad, or there’s other examples as well, but that’s the most obvious one these days.
But yeah, once they get their story docket put together, I think they do a pretty good job of presenting both sides of that story. It’s just the story itself may not really be the biggest news of the day.

Trevor Burrus: I notice on Fox News they like to cover that an immigrant committed a crime, basically as one of their … Therefore, [00:22:30] a lot of Fox News viewers think that immigrants commit a lot of crimes.

Khristine Brookes: Lots of immigrants commit crimes.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

Khristine Brookes: Yeah. That’s exactly where their bias comes in, because it’s like … Now, the storyline you’re selling is statistically wrong, and Alex Nowrasteh has lots of data to support that, but if we keep presenting these little anecdotes about an immigrant committing a crime, you’re going to get the impression that it’s a huge problem, even if it’s still statistically very insignificant.

Trevor Burrus: Now, to return to the question or sort of theme of entertainment [00:23:00] media versus news media, when we talk about the talking heads, like the Bill O’Reillys and the Rachel Maddows, it has always seemed to be that there seems to be a shift in their own shows that they get shriller and shriller as they’re on TV longer, and that Rachel Maddow used to be much more fair-minded in my memory in the first two years than she was later on, in terms of how she treats the other side. Is there a pull, do you think, [00:23:30] for those personalities to become more shrill and carny-esque?

Khristine Brookes: Oh, absolutely. It’s just like the, “Look at me. Look at me. I’ve gotta scream louder, so people will watch.” I think Rachel Maddow is one example, but another example, compare Megyn Kelly daytime versus Megyn Kelly night time. Megyn Kelly, when she was daytime on Fox, was just your basic straightforward news anchor. She had no political … And I don’t think she, herself, has that much of a conservative leaning. But as soon as they put her on prime time, it’s like, ” [00:24:00] Okay. Your prime time audience is a different group of people than your daytime audience, and they want you to be more aggressive. They want you to be more conservative, and can you do this to pull the viewers in?” She did for a little while. Maybe it just got the best of her. But yeah, I think there is a push by the producers of the shows, maybe by the hosts themselves. “Hey, if I’m going to draw viewers, I have to stand up, and scream, and say, ‘Look at me.’” Which is unfortunate, because it’s not the best way to make a news point.

Aaron Powell: How do we fix this? Or is there [00:24:30] a way to … It’s possible that we simply have kind of a golden age notion of news that never really existed.

Khristine Brookes: It existed, and I think it existed because at the time that the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and people forget how long he was on the air. He was on the air a long time. He was the most trusted man in news, because everyone knew who he was. But you didn’t have options. If you were going to watch TV [00:25:00] at 5:00 or 6:00 at night, you were going to watch news, and if you didn’t want to watch news, you could turn on your radio, and if you didn’t want to listen to your radio, you could read a book. That was basically what your choices were. News didn’t have to be entertaining. It was just, “This is something that we’re giving you because you need it. You need this information. It’s important for you to know this stuff.”
Now there are so many choices, you know? You’ve got 118 channels versus eight. You’ve got social media. You’ve got a variety of other online distractions. You don’t have to watch the news anymore. [00:25:30] If news media’s going to be a business, it has to do something to get your attention, and unfortunately, carnies are going to get your attention a lot more than a guy like Walter Cronkite.

Trevor Burrus: But should we call that the golden age? I mean, maybe we can call it the golden age of objective, stuffy news reporting or something, but that is not the norm in human history. In 1795, they didn’t have a Walter Cronkite telling them, “Here’s all the news that you need to know.” Then they didn’t have that for most of human [00:26:00] history. Pretty much for about post-war to about 1996 is when they had it, and that made America seem pretty unified, possibly, for people having nostalgia for, “Remember when Americans could agree on facts, and weren’t always at each others’ throats, and all these things?” Maybe that news environment was falsely creating a sense of unanimity or more agreement than there actually was, because it was producing its own sort of product.

Khristine Brookes: Yeah. I think you’re right. I think [00:26:30] we have this idea that everyone agreed with everything that Walter Cronkite was saying. I think of it as the golden age of news, not because everybody agreed with what they were being fed, but at least people had information. At least people were presented with facts that were 99% true and could then take those facts and draw an opinion. Now, I just don’t know that people are getting facts anymore. You ask people, “Well, where do you get your news?” “Oh, from my Facebook feed.” Okay, well, are you sure your friend’s a great reporter? Because [00:27:00] there’s some people that follow legitimate news organizations and are getting what I would call news, and there’s other people that are getting, unfortunately, the fake news that Donald Trump rails against all the time. I just don’t know that they’re getting the true information like they used to.

Aaron Powell: Does fixing that, or at least pushing it back in the other direction, depend on stripping away the democratization of news that’s [00:27:30] happened because of the internet? This fake news, there’s the cable news networks, which are from our perspective faker than, say, the mainstream newspapers would be, just in terms of quality of reporting and their ability to put entertainment and shrillness in front of trying to get the facts right, but a lot of it is coming from the internet, and a lot of the stuff shared on Facebook is not cable news. It’s internet news, and it’s [00:28:00] from blogs, and outlets like Breitbart, or on the left … The left likes to say that, “We don’t fall for the fake news.” But then they share every bizarre science reporting article from the Huffington Post.

Trevor Burrus: Or Alternet.

Aaron Powell: Or Alternet. But to some extent, that is all the result of … It used to be that if you wanted to get news out to people, you had to do it through broadcast or publishing a newspaper, or publishing a magazine, all of [00:28:30] which were extraordinarily expensive, and not just expensive, but in some case, like in the case of broadcast, were legally limited. You could maybe have a pirate radio station, but that was about it. But now anyone can put stuff out there, and from a Libertarian perspective, and from kind of a free market perspective, that seems good. We want a thriving ecosystem. We want easy entrance. We don’t want the established players to be able to keep people [00:29:00] out, but it also seems to be what’s caused or has led to a lot of the problems that we’re seeing. To one extent, it can be because these things didn’t function as like … Breitbart can function as a prototype, so Fox News can say, “Look, we see that Breitbart’s suddenly really popular, and we want to make money, so we’re going to try to do what they’re doing,” so they’re proofs of concept for even worse reporting. Is there a way to make this situation better without [00:29:30] kind of the elite clamping back down again on distribution?

Khristine Brookes: Well, yeah. I mean, I do think that there are, like I said earlier, the fact-checking. The internet has made fact-checking very easy. If you see a story that you know has an error in it, you can post a comment right below the story, and say, “No. That’s wrong. Here’s the accurate information.” Now, you’re an honest person. You’re going [00:30:00] to be truthful when you do that kind of fact-checking. Unfortunately, not everybody who reads the story is going to be honest, and there’s so much self-policing that has to go on on the internet, and in actual news organizations. I think that it can lead to a good result, but it’s gonna be a lot of work, and it’s gonna be a lot of work for the readers. I mean, we need a more educated public in terms of news consumption. We need for people … This is something I know Facebook is working [00:30:30] on, as well as some other social media outlets. If you read something that you think is a little too fantastic to be true, it probably is, and maybe you should do a little fact-checking on your own before you share it. If we create more responsible news consumers, we’re probably gonna be a lot better off, but I don’t know how close we are to getting to that.

Trevor Burrus: Going through, we mentioned millennials and the changing media environment. How much do you get the sense that the current media companies and people are [00:31:00] afraid of the future?

Khristine Brookes: I think they’re a little afraid of the future, because they don’t completely understand it yet, and they don’t know how to monetize it, which, you know, a media company is a business, and in the end, yeah, they want you to have news, but they also want you to want to pay for it. They want to create a product that is worth you paying for, and they don’t quite know how to do that yet with millennials, because millennials are just so accustomed to getting free information. How are we gonna set up a situation where they’re willing [00:31:30] to pay the $10 to go beyond the paywall and see the whole story? Are they gonna be satisfied with only reading the first paragraph, because they have such short attention spans?
I think that’s what scares media companies, and I think you’ve seen them take a few wrong steps in trying to gain a few more eyeballs from that millennial audience. Certainly the Fox News Channel, you see a lot of the guests and anchors are getting younger and younger, because there’s some, I think, flawed theory that young people want to watch other young people present the news. I don’t think [00:32:00] that’s true. They tend to want people that are older than them. We actually tested this for some of our own video content. What convinces people more, a young person telling you a point of view, or an older person telling you a point of view? And it’s the old guy with gray hair.
I think that there are some misfires as the media tries to figure this out, but the fact that there are just so many choices in news right now, I think big media companies are really going to have to diversify if they want to keep [00:32:30] making money.

Aaron Powell: What does this changing media landscape, so everything we’ve just discussed for the last 30 minutes, mean for think tanks, for us, for the way that we approach both the kind of scholarship that we produce, the way that we present it, the way that we communicate it to the media, or to audiences outside of the media? How do we have to rethink our communications strategy for this [00:33:00] new landscape?

Khristine Brookes: Well, to quote Cato’s fabulous social media director Kat Marty, you have to meet them where they are. As a think tank, we have to figure out who we want to be talking to, and then we have to go figure out where they are. If we want to talk to Capitol Hill, that’s a different distribution than talking to the mass public. If we want to talk to younger audiences, which you guys have been doing so well with Libertarianism.org, we have to figure out where they’re getting their [00:33:30] information from. If we’re buying ads in newspapers to try to reach millennial audiences, we’re not going to do very well. Just like big media companies have to diversify if they want to make money, we have to diversify our outreach in order to reach those audiences that we’re trying to convince, because in the end, we would like everyone to go to the voting booth, and write to their congressman, and take part in civic society, with Libertarian principles in mind. But if we can’t [00:34:00] teach them what those Libertarian principles are, we’re not going to be very successful.
We need to try to reach them where they are. That still means doing TV, because even though TV audiences are shrinking, it is still the largest distribution tool, so we still need to be on TV. I’m not sure how many more years I’m actually going to be saying that, but for the moment, we still need to be on TV.

Trevor Burrus: That was my next question.

Khristine Brookes: We need to be all over social media, but we have to recognize that social media is a much more … It’s not a medium where you’re going to get someone to read a 70- [00:34:30] page research paper. We have to use social media to pull people in, to get them interested in some of the things that we may be saying, and then we have to convince them to maybe read an op-ed, and then maybe go so far as to actually read a whole book, which would be really cool.
We have to kind of recognize that our audience needs to be pulled in gradually, as opposed to just smacking them over the head, because we are a research organization. We are not a social media organization. We are not a talking points organization. We do actual research that’s important, and [00:35:00] we want people to read that research, but if we’re going to reach audiences that aren’t accustomed to taking in large quantities of substantive policy material, we have to kind of ease them in.

Trevor Burrus: On that point about the future of television, which one thing that millennials don’t seem to want to do is to sit down at 7:00 and watch a show between 7:00 and 8:00. Even me, that seems crazy to me now. Just to be like, “Gotta get home to watch something at 7:00 PM.”

Khristine Brookes: [00:35:30] Appointment television.

Trevor Burrus: In that world, when we have YouTube, things like the Rubin Report, will that completely change? Is that demographic that Fox News and MSNBC, the people who watch the commercials, who pay the bills, who watch at the appointed time, is that-

Khristine Brookes: That’s, yeah. That’s going away.

Trevor Burrus: That will go.

Khristine Brookes: That will go.

Trevor Burrus: And so they will have to completely change what they do.

Khristine Brookes: Pew did some research recently, which I’m kind of [00:36:00] peeking at right now. “Gap Between Television and Online News Consumption Narrows from 2016.” From 2016 to 2017, went from 57% to 50% of the number of people that got their news from television, and online went from 38% to 43%. That gap is narrowing, and I think will disappear pretty soon. I wonder if it’s even more insignificant now, because if you ask people, “Where do you get your news?” And they say, ” [00:36:30] Well, from Fox News.” I think they might be getting it from Fox News’ website, but I don’t think that they are sitting down at 8:00 to see what Fox has to offer up. I think they are taking little bits and pieces of video from Fox’s news site, and that’s what they’re watching.
Yeah. I think that probably not too far into the future, maybe just 10 years, people are going to be going to their mobile devices and deciding which video they want to watch from whatever organization, whether it’s Fox News, or the [00:37:00] Cato Institute, or the Heritage Foundation, or the Center for American Progress. You’re not going to have to be a traditional news organization to get your message out there on the same level as a traditional news organization might.

Aaron Powell: Does that, to some extent, mean we should flip the script, in the sense that the way that Cato has approached media, not of the newspaper or the publishing reports kind, but of the getting on television, [00:37:30] getting on radio, is, we get our people placed on … And we have people here who work all day, every day trying to get Cato people placed on these programs being put out by these media companies. Should we be flipping that, and saying, “Well, instead, we should be just making our own programs, and then putting those out on YouTube or wherever else that has just as much of a possibility of reaching an audience, and then we can do it our own way”?

Khristine Brookes: Yeah, and I think we have [00:38:00] been doing that. We’ve been easing into that for the last few years. Like I said, at the moment, I think it’s still important to be one of those voices on the cable news outlets, because people are still watching, for the moment. But to the extent that we can be producing our own video content, whether it’s a sit-down show where people are talking, or something that I think is more effective with certain audiences, putting together short, two to three-minute videos that illustrate a policy area, in a graphically-enhanced way [00:38:30] that attract these younger audiences that are not likely to watch a couple of talking heads. Even though you guys are very interesting talking heads, maybe they’re not so into news that they would want to watch a couple of talking heads, but if you show them something that had some cool graphics, and made one, solid point, like, “The United States should not be paying for so many military bases overseas, and here’s a graphic to show you how much money we’ve been spending, and why we think this is a bad idea,” all in three minutes. I think those sorts of things are going to be very effective moving forward [00:39:00] into the next 10 to 20 years.

Trevor Burrus: Well, then I just see an even more democratized media environment, and more people saying fake news all the time.

Khristine Brookes: I know, and that’s [crosstalk 00:39:08].

Trevor Burrus: Because everyone’s getting it through their own little personal news feeds, which-

Khristine Brookes: And everyone can make videos these days.

Trevor Burrus: Everyone can make videos.

Khristine Brookes: I mean, I think we make good, high-quality produced videos, but people watch videos that are not highly produced, that someone shot with an iPhone. It is very democratized, because iPhones and that sort of technology has made video [00:39:30] production extremely easy, so we’re going to have more competition, and that’s when our marketing people, also in my department, need to figure out, “How do you attract those eyeballs? How do you rise above all that clatter?”

Trevor Burrus: Well, the interesting thing there is, for a long time, you’ve had institutions of trust, that when Cato, particularly when we first started out, the New York Times would quote us, or we’d go on NBC Nightly News, when [00:40:00] that was one of the only three or four, including PBS, you could go on, that validated Cato, and hopefully we have enough institutional capacity now that we sort of validate ourselves. But when those go away, if people don’t trust Washington Post or New York Times, then it doesn’t really matter, or do you think that will happen? Do you think that those will even be un-trusted?

Khristine Brookes: Yeah. I mean, I think you’re always going to find someone that tries to detract from your message, saying, “Okay, well you can’t believe [00:40:30] the numbers the Cato institute is giving you, because they’re only saying that because donor A or donor B told them to.” Which is not true, and any good reporter investigating how we came to a point of view would find that we did not come to that point of view because of any sponsor of this organization. It doesn’t matter. I mean, someone can still accuse us of that, and they can accuse any organization of that. They can accuse the Fox News Channel of doing everything that Rupert Murdoch wants.

Trevor Burrus: Or Washington Post, with Jeff Bezos.

Khristine Brookes: Or the Washington Post, carrying Jeff Bezos’ [00:41:00] water. If you research all the articles that they wrote and determine how many were in favor of a Bezos position, which I don’t know how anybody would know that, it would probably be wrong, but-

Trevor Burrus: You can just ask Alexa.

Khristine Brookes: Alexa will tell you.

Trevor Burrus: She will tell you the truth.

Khristine Brookes: Once the accusation is made, a lot of people are going to buy that and say, “Oh, yeah. Well, of course they’re only being led around by whoever’s funding them.” There’s always going to be those kinds of criticisms, but I think that the smart people that do actually look at our research, [00:41:30] and read it thoroughly, and say, “Okay, well I see how they came to that conclusion based on that data,” those are the people we really want to reach anyway. There are a lot of people out there that just are never going to be convinced that we’re right about anything, because they’ve decided that they hate our position on immigration, or they hate our foreign policy, so it doesn’t really matter what else we say. They’ve just decided they’re not going to agree with us. I think that’s unfortunate, but those people I think we need to kind of just dismiss, and go after the people that we can convince.

Aaron Powell: Within all of this, are there [00:42:00] particular challenges? Because what we’ve talked about so far would be potentially best practices for any organization doing the kind of thing that we do, so any think tank could learn from that, but are there particular challenges as a Libertarian think tank getting out a Libertarian message when communicating to people, like the short videos that explain a single point? By way of example, one of the things that I notice is the difficulty because we don’t have [00:42:30] a team. We aren’t the Democrats. We aren’t the Republicans. It sometimes is easier to frame yourself and frame your idea in opposition to, so, “We don’t want to be like those guys, so therefore we’re like this.” Or you want to be, “We’re part of this group that you like, and so that’s why our idea … We’re going to tell you what this group likes.”
Libertarianism [00:43:00] doesn’t have that, and it also … Oftentimes our views flow from a more self-conscious set of foundational beliefs than the traditional conservative or progressive, which have kind of become just a grab bag of things that they hold onto that just have a delineator between them and the other guys. “We like this because, we take this position because it’s not their position, but there’s not really any coherence to the overall arc of the views.” Whereas we have, almost to understand [00:43:30] our views in the first place, you have to say, “Okay, well first you have to agree with us that human liberty matters. You have to agree with us that freedom leads to wealth.” These kinds of things, which is a bigger sell.
I guess one way of asking the question, then, is does this move to, “We have to be talking to these people. We have to kind of figure out how to shorten things up, or make a single point”? Is that harder for us than it would be for other people?

Khristine Brookes Well, it’s harder for us, because like you said, there’s no shorthand [00:44:00] with Libertarians. With a lot of other think tanks, the shorthand is, “This think tank is affiliated with the Republican Party.” Well, most everybody knows that the Republican Party stands for, so they can very quickly make a judgment on what that think tank things. Or, “This think tank is associated with the Democratic Party.” Okay, well, I get that. Okay, and then we say, “Not only are we not Republican or Democrat politically, we’re also not the Libertarian Party. We are not the entity that’s backing [00:44:30] a Libertarian presidential candidate.” Or they may have some views that are similar to ours, but we don’t jump into an election, elective politics like that, either. That makes it even harder for them, because everyone wants to know, “Okay, well what horse do you back? Because I can make a judgment on what I think of you based on what political candidate you’re backing.” “Well, we don’t back any of them.”
Okay, then now we have to go back to square one. “What do you believe?” Like you said, we believe in limited government. We believe that you should be free to do what you want to do as long as you’re not hurting somebody else. [00:45:00] I think simplifying our viewpoint down to those specific things. You know, “We think you should be able to keep more of what you earn. We think the government should stay out of your bedroom. We think our government should pay more attention to what’s happening here in the United States than having a lot of military adventurism.” I think simplifying our message like that, but then convincing people that a viewpoint doesn’t have to be associated with a political party, and you don’t have to vote Republican or Democrat every single time you vote. You can vote for [00:45:30] a Republican once. You can vote for a Democrat. I mean, tying people to a political party for their entire life and telling them that, “If you have these five viewpoints, you are only allowed to vote for a Republican for the rest of your life.” I mean, breaking people away from that I think would be a good thing.

Trevor Burrus: Aside from … You might have just answered this question, but aside from some sort of tips that Libertarians or Cato policy people are known to do when we’re communicating, what things do Libertarians do when communicating that drive you crazy?

Khristine Brookes: [00:46:00] They frequently try to make a philosophical point.

Aaron Powell: What’s wrong with that?

Khristine Brookes: Yeah.

Trevor Burrus: This is why you don’t do media, Aaron.

Khristine Brookes: I think that philosophical points are very good on C-SPAN, if you ever do Washington Journal, because most of the people watching are very engaged and they’re going to know what you’re talking about for the most point. If you’re on the PBS News Hour, also an opportunity to explain how philosophy guides your viewpoints. That might work on the News Hour. [00:46:30] Most other television broadcast programs, as soon as you go to philosophy, you’ve just lost half your audience. They just want to know, “Are you pro-immigration or anti-immigration?” I keep using immigration as an example, but you know, people get that. You’ve lost them if you try to explain the philosophical underpinnings that led you to that conclusion, which is unfortunate, because they should care more. The problem is, they just don’t.
I would say we need to save the philosophy for a time that we’ve actually got somebody in [00:47:00] the door. We’ve gotten them interested in a short video or a podcast, or even there’s a lot of humor that can be used to drag people into a more philosophical conversation, but I don’t think we should lead with that, and sometimes they do lead with it.

Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening, and if you’ve been listening to us for the last five years, you’ve heard the name Evan Banks a lot.

Trevor Burrus: 200 episodes.

Aaron Powell: Over 200 episodes, he’s been our producer. The one who’s made the show sound as [00:47:30] good as it does, who’s cut out our “ums” and pauses, and missteps.

Trevor Burrus: And the times we spoke to him off air that you guys didn’t hear.

Aaron Powell: Yes.

Trevor Burrus: “Evan, cut out that last question I just asked.”

Aaron Powell: Terrible or inappropriate jokes that could have gotten us fired.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, like for example, before we started recording this the first time, Aaron said, “greener pastures.”

Aaron Powell: I did.

Trevor Burrus: We realized that people will think Evan is dead.

Aaron Powell: Evan’s not dead. He’s just no longer with Cato.

Trevor Burrus: Evan’s not dead. He’s like, “Evan moved on to greener pastures.” See, now Evan would have caught that.

Aaron Powell: Evan would have caught that.

Trevor Burrus: [00:48:00] And Tess did catch that, of course. He’s not dead.

Aaron Powell: He’s not dead.

Trevor Burrus: He’s just moved on to better things.

Aaron Powell: He’s on to better things, and Trevor and I just wanted to thank him and encourage all of you to thank him. Evan has been a tremendous asset. The show would not be what it is without him, and he will be missed. Thank you, Evan.

Trevor Burrus: Thank you.

Aaron Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes, and if you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web [00:48:30] at www.Libertarianism.org.