One of the issues raised in yesterday’s hearing is the exemption for news media organizations from Texas’s lobbying registration statutes. Sullivan is claiming that Empower Texans serves as a news medium as well as an advocacy arm, and that Empower Texans’ status as a “new media” organization exempts its employees (like Sullivan) from the registration requirement. There was a lot of interesting testimony on this point from Sullivan’s expert witness, who among other things pointed to the colonial pamphleteers, and the socialist and Muckraker journalists from around the turn of the century, as examples of the “old, old media,” which used journalism as a means of advocacy.
I think two of today’s mainstream media write-ups help make this point even better. Whether you saw any of the hearing yesterday or not, I invite you to read David Rauf’s piece (SA Express-News and Houston Chronicle), and then read Chuck Lindell’s piece (Austin American-Statesman).
Rauf’s piece leaves out half the story (namely, Michael Quinn Sullivan’s half). There is nary a mention of the significant statutory and constitutional arguments raised by Joe Nixon (Sullivan’s attorney), which were a major focus of the hearing for anyone who listened.
If you compare those two pieces, one thing should be immediately clear: hard news reporters have just as much influence on public opinion–by the manner in which they cover stories–than do any of the best opinion writers or talking heads or advocacy organizations (like Empower Texans, to pick a random example). In fact, most average voters, I would imagine, read things like the Chronicle website rather than policy or campaign pieces put out by left or right organizations. Does that mean we should do away with the media exemption? Of course not. It means serious people should grapple with the fact that formally-disinterested hard news reporters and editors wield tremendous influence over public policy. By determining whom to interview about a story, what questions to ask, and what angles to cover (and even what stories to cover in the first place), hard news writers–over time–undeniably shape the electorate.
This is why, in places like Russia and Venezuela right now and countless other places throughout history, autocratic governments always move to control news media (not just opinion writers). By controlling hard news reporting you control the narrative.
I was in my office in Houston, so I couldn’t attend, and the official House feed was not working. Thankfully, an outfit called Agendawise set up a live feed available for free on its website. Agendawise is a conservative organization that you might refer to as “new media.” Because of that feed, I was able to read and evaluate the two pieces that appeared today.