The 150 people gathered at a local church last Saturday were irked by the thought of liberal journalists putting their clammy secular fingers on America's pulse. But judging by the performance of Rocky Mountain News deputy editorial-page editor Dave Shiflett, they would be lucky to encounter a journalist who even has a pulse.
In Shiflett's newspaper sphere, apparently, no one is interested in much of anything, let alone his job. Speaking to people who had given up a Saturday morning because they fervently believe they've been called upon by God to change the world, Shiflett said, "Editors, journalists, like everyone else, want to do as little as possible."
Lunch, however, is doable. Invited to the private "Do It Right Seminar" to provide tips on how to get letters to the editor published and how to convince newspapers to stamp out abortion and homosexuality, the conservative Shiflett desultorily dispensed a few stealthy tactics, then zoomed in on one very important piece of advice. "It's always good to cultivate an editor," he said. "You establish a relationship with somebody. Ask them out to lunch or whatever."
Or to a strategy session like the three-and-a-half-hour meeting at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Family Council, the state affiliate of Focus on the Family's national network of political activists.
Invoking the name of host Tom McMillen, director of the Rocky Mountain Family Council, Shiflett repeatedly salted his remarks with such phrases as "Tom wanted me to say..." and "What Tom wanted me to tell you..." As he told the audience, "What Tom basically was interested in was how you can approach the media."
In doing as instructed, Shiflett didn't mention such noble journalistic cliches as "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" or even talk about the heightened sense of curiosity, thrill of communicating or just plain nosiness that attracts many people to the newspaper business. Instead, he likened the task of selling an editor on a story to the job of a peddler at a "big bazaar," saying, "It's not a mystical process. Everybody's got a rug to sell. If it's a good rug, it'll be sold."
And always, the editor counseled, make life easy for editors, whether the goal is to see a story idea in print or simply to have a letter published. "Jump into the battle," he advised prospective letter writers. "But always write a very short note. Again, we have the `as-little-work-as-possible' rule."
Shiflett apparently practices what he preaches. He told the audience about his busy freelance career, which he said he carries on while working full-time for the News. He never mentioned News editor Jay Ambrose or his other bosses, but he talked several times about "my editor at the Wall Street Journal" and bragged about being able to rehash the same feature story on Promise Keepers for different publications. "I could do it in my sleep," he said. "It seems criminal sometimes that it's so easy."
Shiflett's somnambulant half-hour speech contrasted sharply with the bright-eyed zeal of his listeners. It also paled beside the rousing lectures delivered by recently elected state treasurer Bill Owens, Focus on the Family official Gary Barkalow and McMillen.
"I'm so excited that people like you are getting involved," Owens told the group, noting that religious activists of other stripes have been at the forefront of numerous political causes, including abolition, civil rights and the antiwar movement. During his twelve years in the Colorado General Assembly, Owens said, much of his opposition came from the "religious left." But he stressed that he was not a "liberal-basher," and he urged the flock to be kinder and gentler, adding, "It takes them knowing we don't have horns on our head and don't want to make them go to our church on Sunday morning."
Maybe, maybe not. McMillen's group spread the word about the seminar among evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics and screened those interested in attending the free session by asking only one question over the telephone: "What church do you go to?"
When the activists gathered that morning, the personable McMillen, whose stated policy is to "work behind the scenes" and not seek publicity for his group, felt secure enough among friends to joke around. After telling everyone to stand up and stretch, he cracked, "I read in the paper where the religious right is ignorant and easily led. And you all just stood up!"
Barkalow, too, warmed up the crowd with a humorous anecdote, explaining how at a Focus on the Family workshop in South Dakota he mistook a bowl of mayonnaise for vanilla pudding. The crowd, as pure white as either food product, laughed heartily. But Barkalow soon turned serious, exhorting the activists in what he called the "pro-family movement" to follow "God's mandate to rule over the Earth and subdue it." He emphasized that "we're not to be a special-interest group, content with our own comfort. Everything we are and do is for the good of all people. You and I, as believers, are viceroys in this world. We're supposed to step into this world and subdue it."
But be nice while you're doing that, McMillen added. "Pray for humility," he advised. "It's so easy to be right. Because we are right. The Bible has truth for all humanity. But it's hard to be humble."
Although Shiflett avoided that obstacle, he did distance himself from most journalists, contending that he is one of the few newspaper columnists anywhere who is not a supporter of abortion.
Asked by one audience member why the media won't publish "an actual photographic documentary of abortion" to graphically portray its horrors, Shiflett replied, "I think it would be fascinating. But basically, newspapers are pro-choice." When the audience member asked why, he replied, "I don't know. It's the reigning orthodoxy."
Pressed on how activists can combat that mindset and get stories into print that advocate sexual abstinence and militate against abortion, Shiflett advocated a stealth approach: "People don't like to be preached to. Pitch stories that reflect those values."
Shiflett's cynical portrayal of a meek press primarily concerned with "filling holes" between ads occasionally prompted rumbles from audience members, many of whom are cynical about newspapers for a different reason: They see many journalists as active promoters of immorality. Some were visibly stunned to learn that newspapers are, according to Shiflett, staffed by apathetic people.
"Your comment about `making work easier'--I'm concerned about investigative reporting," said one questioner. "Are you satisfied with the investigative reporting that's taking place?"
Shiflett replied that investigative reporting was just a question of money. "You'd see more if it didn't cost so much to do," he said. "The newspaper industry is having a rough time. Revenues are flat, and there was just a 40 percent hike in the price of newsprint."
When another questioner wondered how to sell editors on doing "public education on abortion," Shiflett replied, "Most editors are going to shy away from that. They're interested in promoting stuff like literacy and spelling bees."
On the other hand, Shiflett added, squeaky wheels do get greased by editors. He said that people like Boulder abortion doctor Warren Hern and Pat Blumenthal of the pro-choice lobby aren't at all shy about approaching newsroom decision-makers.
"Warren Hern will call and Pat Blumenthal will come in and complain about something or other," he said. "People on the other side are very active, so you should be, too."
Just the mention of Hern's name caused this group to rustle uncomfortably in their seats. They're outraged that some state lawmakers, led by Senator Dorothy Rupert of Boulder, attempted to honor Hern.
Owens, a dynamic and articulate speaker, played on that anger by opining that Rupert "thinks less than anyone else in the legislature." But after dispensing a host of practical tips on how to follow legislative bills and bend the ears of lawmakers, Owens stressed that not everyone's an enemy. He praised Shiflett's paper for its conservative editorial stance, calling the News's editorial page "a real jewel," and cautioned the activists not to judge journalists harshly.
McMillen echoed that advice. "Be Godly and respectful" to journalists like Shiflett, he said, calling for a round of applause for the News's representative. "Think about yourself being asked to talk to 200 editors about Christianity."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But according to Shiflett himself, it wouldn't be difficult for these activists to curry favor with journalists. A former flack in the Reagan administration who also once toiled for the Unification Church-owned Washington Times, he noted that he's familiar with journalists here and inside the Beltway.
"I've found journalists in Denver are very easy to get along with," Shiflett said. "I don't think you have as big a hurdle to put up with as you would in Washington or New York."
Especially if you take them to lunch.