Media Matters boot camp readies liberal policy wonks for the camera’s close-up
By Jason Horowitz,
“I’m here to be intensely trained,” Lee Brenner announced as he came through the door of a discreet building near Dupont Circle.
The brick carriage house is usually the headquarters of the Mathematical Association of America, but for a few days in the middle of March, the left-wing organization Media Matters for America converted it into a partisan boot camp where rebel forces were trained for combat on Fox News. Over four grueling days, Harvard-honed instructors drilled a dozen softie policy wonks, molding them into an elite unit of smiling, succinct and well-coiffed talking heads.
Since its inception in August 2009, the Progressive Talent Initiative, or PTI, has trained nearly 100 pundits who have appeared 800 times on television and radio. Media Matters uses that metric to pitch donors for more contributions, but its leadership believes that the surge of camera-ready liberals has recaptured lost ground in the media wars against conservatives.
“There was a chronic imbalance,” said David Brock, the founder of Media Matters, which picks up the entire cost of the course. “We didn’t just want to accept that this is the way it is.” Brock is a former conservative writer at the American Spectator who was instrumental in efforts to discredit Anita Hill and to oust Bill Clinton, and who made a sharp left turn a decade ago.
The primary mission of Media Matters, he said, is to obsessively monitor Fox News and call attention to its distortions. But now it’s moving into the operational phase, transforming from observers to shock troops. The organization, he said, had to “professionalize the training and booking” of a left-leaning counterpoise.
Media Matters selected the coterie of attractive, articulate participants from 100 applicants, the largest pool so far. All in mid-career, the class included liberal think tank directors, former Capitol Hill staffers and presidential campaign aides, a pollster, a university professor, a combat veteran and contestants from both “American Idol” and “The Apprentice.”
Brenner, a former producer of CNN’s “Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer” and political director at MySpace, had recently founded a digital communications firm called FastFWD Group and an online magazine called HyperVocal.com.
To observe the training, The Post agreed to withhold the names of participants who asked not to be identified, which many of them did when instructors warned that a public alliance with Media Matters could jeopardize their chances of getting booked on Fox. Since Brenner said he had already criticized Fox on the record, he for one was willing to risk alienating “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren.”
On Wednesday morning, Brenner, who has black coiled hair, a pleasant demeanor and a taste for the blazer-and-jeans look, climbed the stairs to perform his “baseline video” hit with instructor John Neffinger.
Neffinger, 39, is one of the three partners in KNP Communications, a D.C.-based firm that Media Matters contracts to conduct the training. An attorney with a boyish, Tom Cruise charm (equal parts “The Firm” and “Magnolia”), Neffinger had a promising career teaching public speaking to executives, including those who “sold cigarettes to kids,” he said. He abandoned all that for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.
There, he met Matthew Kohut, 45, a reserved former jazz bassist working as a speechwriter for the renowned professor Joseph Nye. Kohut, the son of a famous pollster, introduced Neffinger to his pal, Seth Pendleton, 47, who earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. (In 1994, Pendleton appeared as a stand-in on the Albert Einstein-themed romance “I.Q.” during a scene crawling with rhesus monkeys.)
After John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, the three Democrats decided to use their gifts for communication to rescue their ailing party.
“I’m not going to play gotcha with you,” Neffinger said to Brenner as he directed him to a seat in front of a video camera. “What’s your issue area?”
Brenner explained that his firm dealt with new-media journalism.
“Joining us now to talk new media is Democratic strategist Lee Brenner,” Neffinger boomed in character.
“Thanks for having me,” Brenner said. And suddenly, the interview didn’t go so well. The corners of Brenner’s mouth tended to twitch on the way to a smile. But Neffinger accentuated the positive, especially the sign-off, when Brenner looked most at ease. “As we like to say,” he said, “you stuck the landing.”
Brenner joined the other participants in a wood-paneled room on the carriage house’s ground floor. A camcorder stood on a tripod in the middle of desks arranged in a horseshoe formation. Black and white boards hung on the walls. Brock, with graying hair and blue tie, offered some words of wisdom to the class. Their conservative antagonists had all gone through rigorous media training at the Leadership Institute, he warned, but now they, too, would be armed with the ammunition to compete.
Pendleton took the floor.
“You are going to be challenged. You are going to be exhausted. You are going to be frustrated,” he said, before surveying the group about how they felt when they went on television.
“I tend to get dry, so I need to hydrate,” Brenner said to the class. “Hydrate. Pee. Call my mom.”
The problem for the soldiers of the left, according to Media Matters instructors, is that they are just too smart for their own good. The traditional dependence on facts and figures, on being right, is no longer germane. Too often these wonks disappear into the policy weeds or fall through the cracks of nuance.
Eager to offer a conversion parable, the instructors showed a Fox News appearance by PTI graduate Taylor West, now a communications director for National Journal, in which her good-natured teasing bested a conservative expert on Web security. She knew virtually nothing about the issue and crammed for the interview in the makeup chair.
The morning was dominated by a PowerPoint presentation by Drew Westen, the Democratic message guru and author of “The Political Brain.” Westen, wearing a boxy jacket, glasses and suspenders, showed examples of the right’s genius for branding (from “government takeover” to “death taxes”) and the left’s relative ineptitude. Westen said that the tea party’s “populist message, tinged with racism” was effective and offered a quote from Al Gore as “the absolute worst in progressive communication.”
As Brenner sipped tea, Westen pontificated about the similarities between human and sheep brains and then conducted some psychological experiments on the class to demonstrate “a heightened state of latent activation in your brain.” To emphasize the point, he played a Fox News clip, showing anchor Shepard Smith accidentally referencing a sex act in a segment about Jennifer Lopez. As the class chirped, Westen observed that while “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” the clip revealed that certain words and images triggered powerful, and usually unspoken, thoughts in the viewer’s mind.
The word “Liberal” then appeared on the screen, surrounded by “elite,” “big government,” “sushi-eating” and “latte-drinking.” Westen explained that the “right has spent 40 years and tens of billions of dollars” tarnishing the once-proud label. “In this room, it’s like: Feminism and lesbianism? Yeah!” he observed approvingly. But TV watchers elsewhere don’t feel the same. In short, anything “liberal” fires the wrong synapses.
“For the average person,” Westen said, “this is not a good network to be activating.”
After a lunch of Cajun chicken and shrimp, the participants returned to a classroom bursting with the energy of Kohut, Neffinger and Pendleton, the “KNP Boys” as Westen called them. The class leaders tossed markers and exclaimed, “Let’s diagram this!” They projected an image of a middle-aged woman — one of the instructor’s aunts, grinning in a kitchen — and then explained that the entire point of the course was to win over swing-voting aunts nationwide.
The key, they explained, was to ooze likability and reasonableness, and make their opponents seem otherwise. A talk-show host acts as a proxy for the viewer, they counseled, so it was critical to maintain a good rapport.
“Even if you are failing on a number of levels,” Pendleton said, all is not lost “if you have forward energy.”
Neffinger cautioned the class that Fox hosts would treat them as predictable liberals. “And so, as they say in the theater,” he said, “you are playing against type.”
Brenner volunteered to take the hot seat.
“Twitter, tweeter, what does it all mean?” Pendleton asked condescendingly.
“When I started working at MySpace,” said Brenner, trying to draw a connection with the woman in the kitchen, “I didn’t even have a MySpace page.”
The instructors explained that referencing MySpace might be a bit esoteric.
“Should I start with how Murdoch owned MySpace?” Brenner asked.
The participants spent the rest of the afternoon being grilled by instructors who, with pitch-perfect Bill O’Reilly bombast, called them callous for refusing to intervene in Libya, cowards for cutting-and-running in Afghanistan, profligate for defending government spending and out of touch for putting religious tolerance above the war on terror. In response, the participants practiced their media martial arts.
Brenner nodded in knowing agreement as the class learned that journalists were conflict-seeking showmen, easily disarmed by the use of their first names or compliments on the cleverness of their questions. The participants became adept in the craft of the pivot and setting up far-left straw men to make their own left-leaning positions seem more moderate. They jotted their talking points on Media Matters envelopes and heard about the supremacy of storytelling.
“A good story is a Trojan horse,” said Pendleton, to “deploy your ideas.”
Once the horse is inside the walls, “gut everyone,” Neffinger said, stabbing the air.
‘Be the bad guy’
Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, has said he watches television with the sound off to better judge talent. Media Matters, too, is embracing the notion of television debate as performance art. The PTI program is in part conceived by Joel Silberman, a Democratic media trainer and former cabaret singer, who says things like “actors speak louder than words,” “heart, persona, presence” and “feeling wins.” The instructors at the carriage house spend an entire day emphasizing “nonverbals.”
The participants studied “strength and warmth inventory” handouts (“furrowed brow” for strength, “brow up” for warmth). They learned to avoid licking lips, tilting heads and rubbing one hand against the other. Even a benign tic can read sinister on-screen. “Paper covers rock” is the safest hands-at-rest position.
A day after his first go-round, Brenner switched his subject to foreign aid and again underwent questioning by Neffinger, who was adopting the persona of an NPR interlocutor. Before they began, Brenner put one leg in front of the other in a seated runner’s stance and puffed his chest forward. He exuded greater confidence and offered more concise answers. Then, suddenly, the talking-points envelope on his lap slipped through his legs and onto the floor. His shoulders grew tight, his concentration faltered.
“This stance was starting to get uncomfortable,” Brenner explained to Neffinger after the interview. He said he had needed to move his left leg forward “another three inches.”
“You got, like, a cramp?” Neffinger asked.
“I was holding it, and I was like, ‘Okay, am I shaking here?’ It was like I was in gym class.”
Neffinger handed Brenner his digital chip, which kept track of all his interviews. He walked into the hallway and inserted it into one of several laptops on which participants studied their own faces.
“The posture wasn’t great,” Brenner self-assessed. “And I need a haircut.”
Brenner descended the stairs to his next station on the ground floor, where Pendleton conducted panel discussions. “This is going to be Fox-esque,” Pendleton said. “This is going to be that silly game they play of two-on-one.”
After a few turns, the participants demonstrated more ease and effectiveness playing the conservative role. “Any actor will tell you,” Pendleton explained, “it’s more fun to be the bad guy.”
At day’s end, the instructors imparted the dark art of using kindness to trap an opponent. Trapping is “something you just don’t trot out your first time on TV,” Kohut said. It’s an advanced maneuver, Neffinger said, “that will get you on the front of HuffPo.” After another hour of practice, the class recessed into the drizzle. Some stuck around to “brainstorm on structural racism.”
Projecting the persona
On the last day, trainees donned their best clothes to appear at IMG studios, south of Dupont Circle. Pendleton complimented the color of dresses and the sharpness of suits. Brenner wore a powder-blue power tie. His hair was freshly trimmed. As Matthew White, the program assistant, helped him and a handful of other participants mold their very own puttylike “interruptible feedback” earpieces, former MSNBC anchor David Shuster was revealed as the special guest who would now put the participants through a real-world simulation.
After a breakfast of muffins in the studio kitchen, Brenner received a dusting of foundation in the makeup chair. He then posed for head shots down the hall and returned to the kitchen to work on his talking-points envelope.
In the upper left-hand corner, he scribbled “David” for the host’s name and in the middle drew a smiley face to remind him to grin. Among his talking points, he listed “penny on the dollar” and then some stats.
Pendleton took him aside for a last-minute pep talk.
Brenner said he was working on cranking up his warmth and that he was most at ease projecting a “reasonable” persona. He reminisced about his early days in Washington, when he would tell his father about all the politicians and media celebrities he had met. “Do you get how cool it is?” he recalled his father asking him.
“You talking about that right now? The warmth!” cheered Pendleton. “Remember the words of your dad. Cool. This is fun.”
Brenner and his comrades gathered in the control room, where Kelly Ronan, the Media Matters chief of staff, took notes on each performance. The group, too, conducted a running commentary on the interviews. “Book him, Kelly!” one participant yelled after the combat veteran in the group delivered a personal account of why the United States needed to withdraw from Afghanistan. “Book him!”
“Lee, you’re on deck,” said Ronan to Brenner.
He stepped out into the hall, where another participant hopped and waved his arms under the blinking “Studio in Use” light. Pendleton took Brenner aside and whispered, “Remember what your dad told you.”
Shuster asked how Brenner could advocate foreign aid during a budget crisis.
“Well, David,” he replied evenly, “I understand everyone is hurting” and went on to calmly explain that foreign aid pays for medicines for children and early warning systems for tsunamis. In a second round, Shuster hammed it up as an aggressive Fox host and asked Brenner, “Why do you love the children of Africa more than the children of Alabama?”
“I want it to say ‘Made in America’ on medicines rather than bombs,” Brenner replied coolly.
“Ooooh,” the participants in the control room hummed approvingly. “Did he have that in the can?” one asked.
“He did,” nodded Kohut.
The course completed, the group gathered back in the kitchen where Shuster imparted some professional words of wisdom: Smile no matter what; there are groups on the other side working just as hard as you; you’re “on” the moment you get into the studio. The anchor, who was most recently on MSNBC, thanked them all, because, he explained, better-trained guests made for better television.
Media Matters staff handed out feedback forms and told the group about a listserv where policy pointers, last-minute on-screen tutorials and moral support were at their fingertips. The organization was even in the process of hiring its own booking agent to more strategically deploy their talent.
“We’re really working to get you guys booked,” said White, the program assistant. “Because America needs you.”