Open Mic

In a Special Guest Blog, Starz' Executive Tom Southwick, Who Once Served as Press Secretary for the Late Sen. Edward Kennedy, Talks About How Kennedy Worked With the TV Press, and How the TV Press That Covers Public Policy Today Is Failing Us

Chuck Ross Posted August 27, 2009 at 12:31 PM

The following is a guest blog by Tom Southwick. For the past six years Tom has been with Starz in Denver, where he is senior VP of corporate communications. Earlier in his career he was the founder of the trade Cable World, and prior to that he worked at Mutichannel News, where he started as a reporter after serving for three years as the press secretary for Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In this exclusive piece, Tom talks about how Sen. Kennedy approached working with the press, and the Senator’s understanding of the importance of TV in the public policy debate. Tom then talks about what lessons those covering public policy on TV today need to learn from Kennedy’s example.

The passing of a major public figure can serve as a catalyst for reflection and a renewed sense of purpose for those who serve in public life and the journalists who cover them. One hopes this will be the case with the respect to the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, for whom I had the honor to serve as press secretary from 1977-80.

I was 28 when I started working for him. Kennedy had a better understanding of journalism than I ever would. He particularly understood the nature and needs of electronic journalists. Because of his name and his flirtation with the presidency, almost anything he said or did could generate coverage.

But he had no interest in coverage for its own sake. He wasn’t interested in being a celebrity. Instead he carefully used his appeal to the press to advance the issues he cared about and to shine the light on subjects that would otherwise never have been covered. And he understood that the electronic media needed short and impactful sound bites and great visuals. He worked hard to supply those.

His long crusade on health care is a prime example. While I worked for him, he held a series of hearings around the country on health insurance. But instead of dry testimony, he would center the hearings around two average families, one from the city in which the hearing was being held and another from Canada. Each family would be facing the same medical challenges, and were given the chance to compare how they were able to cope under the U.S. and Canadian health care systems.

The two families might have a child with severe disabilities, for example, requiring expensive medical treatment. The U.S. family would be unable to obtain health insurance because of cost or preexisting conditions and would be forced into bankruptcy before receiving any government help under Medicaid. The Canadian family facing the same issue would be able to focus entirely on caring for their child without financial worries because the entire cost of care was covered under the Canadian health system.

This made for powerful TV, particularly for the local stations in the town where the hearings were held, and brought home in a dramatic and visual way the point that Kennedy wanted to get across.
He also loved to speak to groups that were hostile to his proposals. At one point he was invited to speak to American Medical Association, which had long opposed his plan for government-guaranteed health insurance for all Americans. With great glee, and a full understanding that he would be on the evening news, he opened his speech by declaring “Hello, I am happy to be here even though I know you think I am the cure that is worse than the disease.”

His self-deprecating humor and unfailing optimism disarmed the audience and he was able to have a civil and informative exchange of information. It tracked with his determination to find common ground even with his political polar opposites, leading to joint legislative efforts with senators such as Orrin Hatch of Utah and John McCain.

His willingness to work with those who had very different views was a hallmark of Kennedy’s career and a key reason for his many legislative successes. No individual, including presidents, in the history of the United States has had more influence on a wider array of legislation than did Kennedy. And his work improved the lives of billions of people in the United States and every corner of the world.

Yet today Kennedy’s spirit of cooperation and collaboration – his willingness to recognize that all of us deserve respect despite our political differences – seems to be on the wane. Some of this decline in civil discourse can be laid at the feet of the media, particularly the electronic media.
Journalists have an obligation to society that goes beyond the normal business. News organizations need to be profitable, but they also need to be responsible and to report the news in a factual, unbiased manner.

The media has failed when polls reveal that millions of Americans who voted for George W. Bush in 2004, for example, believed erroneously that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq or that so many voters in 2008 believed the myth that Barack Obama was a Muslim or that so many people today believe the falsehood that the health care bill will set up “death panels.”

In addition to spreading disinformation, the partisans on television news and radio talk shows continually question the motives or patriotism of those with whom they disagree. People who opposed the war in Iraq were accused of wanting the terrorists to win. Supporters of health care reform are said to be secretly aiming kill senior citizens. Sen. Kennedy disagreed vehemently with other senators and presidents and he was not shy about expressing his views. But never once, in public or private, did I hear him question the motivation or patriotism of those who held opposing views.

Let us hope that the death of Sen. Kennedy and the example of his life might spark a bit of introspection among those who run our electronic news organizations today. Let us hope they can present more accurate news accounts that will produce a better informed public. Let us hope they can tone down the rhetoric a notch so we can have a better, more civil public. And let us hope we can move toward a society in which even the most partisan among us can acknowledge that their opponents are not enemies, but simply fellow Americans with a different view.

A democracy cannot function otherwise.#