This article was published in the Summer 1999 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation

How to Handle the Press

by Richard O. Hammer

(to table of contents of FNF archives)  (to start of essay)

The Media Are Inherently Statist
Other Attributes of the Media
Remember Your Goal: A New Free Nation
Possible Outcomes of a Meeting with the Press
Do's and Don'ts in Meeting the Press
Answers to Objections which Will be Raised by Other Libertarians
The FNF Challenge: Can Libertarians Learn Faster than Statists?
Publicity Hounds Could Endanger Our Movement

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Imagine that you are approached by a reporter from the mainstream media. The reporter wants to get the scoop on this "free nation" business. What do you say?

I have had one such experience. Late in December 1997 a reporter for The Washington Post sent email saying he was "researching an article on the new nations movement," and asking for an interview. I considered carefully.

For most libertarians such an invitation would be a dream come true. It offers free publicity. And most libertarians need all the publicity they can get—because they are working in the majority-rule, popular-persuasion paradigm. But since I am working in the free-nation paradigm, I see such a situation as more dangerous than promising.

In this article I will tell my theory about the mainstream media—they are naturally statist. I will advise that we free-nation libertarians should probably avoid publicity in these media. And I will propose that we can do this by responding to questions with long, dry, and truthful answers—designed to give a reporter little material with which to write an attention-grabbing article.

I agreed to talk with the reporter at The Washington Post, whose name incidentally was Marc Fisher. We conversed on the phone for half an hour or more, about a week after I received his introductory email. But no story has come out of that interview in the sixteen months since. I count that as a success.

To save verbiage in what follows I will drop the word "mainstream" from "mainstream media." Now of course we libertarians have our own specialized media, our own magazines and mailing lists, in which we can expect sympathetic editing and friendly readers. But that is not what I write about here when I say "media." Keep "mainstream media" in mind because I am writing about non-libertarian reporters, editors, and readers.

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The Media Are Inherently Statist

We libertarians commonly observe that workers in the media seem to love the state. In most cases they give more favorable coverage to proposals which would expand state power than they give to proposals which would diminish state power. But I have not read a good theory to explain this phenomenon.

So naturally I had to cook up my own theory. It is that the media are part of the democratic state. Now apologists for the state will say that the media are separate and unregulated. And I grant that argument seems valid—from the viewpoint taught in government schools.

But we can adopt a broader viewpoint, in which organizations include all components with which a regular and mutually beneficial trade occurs. We see that the democratic state and media use each other. A regular and mutually beneficial trade occurs between them.

In order for a democratic state to work, as its adherents believe it could possibly work, information must be gathered and presented to both voters and politicians, so they can formulate their opinions regarding how other people should be forced. A democratic state requires that large amounts of information be processed.

And the constitution of a democratic state, by specifying the process of representation, lays out the channels through which this information will flow. Since the constitution focuses power in capitals, passion about issues under consideration will drive information through the media to and from capitals. And elections provide the media with strong trade, just as the Christmas season provides retailers with strong trade. As such, a large portion of the media in America work hand-in-hand with the state, as a necessary partner in the process of majority rule.

It is easy for us to understand why a government worker might oppose a libertarian proposal to shrink the state; it is her job we are talking about, after all. I think it takes just one more step to see why a media worker would also feel threatened by a proposal to shrink the state. If government shrivels away, then all the flows of information to and from the capitals will dry up as well; there will be no more work for the media in the old, dominant channels. Media workers, as well as government workers, might have to learn new job skills.

Just as we can expect media workers to resist libertarian proposals to shrink the state, we can expect that media workers will favor statist proposals to expand the state. Because, as the democratic state takes over regulation of more aspects of life, the role of the media becomes more important. As the state grows, more people need to be informed on more issues which are being decided in the capitals. Jobs in the media will be more secure, and there will be more opportunities for advancement in the growing media industry.

Now the workers in the media may present themselves as neutral. And certainly this is true sometimes. When the issue concerns which way the government will regulate some activity, then I will grant that the media are probably neutral, on average. But when the issue concerns whether government will regulate an activity, then I believe the media turn out to be biased on average, to favor regulation.

Thus I hope you see that the media and the democratic state are partners. They sustain each other. We should not expect the truth, as we libertarians see it, to transmit well through the media.

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Other Attributes of the Media

Generally, the reporters in the media have good intentions, on the conscious level. I used to be a leftist, so I think I know how these people think. They think that:

As such, we can generally expect reporters from the media to respond favorably to people who treat them with civility. They will try to give anyone, no matter how alien or hostile their position might seem, a chance to tell their story.

Apart from the attitudes of reporters, the industry in which they work demands colorful stories which grab the attention of readers. Because there is vigorous competition, many stories never get published. In this environment, one thing that reporters look for is sound bites, which are short and provocative quotes. If you give a reporter good sound bites she will have a better chance of getting her story published.

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Remember Your Goal: A New Free Nation

I am writing as a libertarian whose primary aim is creation of a new free nation. In this scenario, libertarians with enough financial strength will organize and acquire land for a new Hong Kong, probably through purchase or lease of underpopulated terrain in a poor third-world country.

I need to point this out because almost all libertarians with whom I come into contact have deeply ingrained habits regarding how they should present themselves to the media: They seek publicity among statists. These habits are appropriate for electioneering in a majority-rule democracy. But, from the viewpoint of the free-nation movement, these habits are probably wasteful and possibly dangerous.

Assuming you join me in thinking as a free-nation libertarian, you will see that what we need to do is to build a new network of trust among wealthy and influential libertarians, where no network now exists. We need to reach these particular libertarians with high quality and focused messages. So exposure in the media can help us if, and to the extent that, it helps us reach these libertarians. Apart from that we have no need for the publicity which majority-rule libertarians habitually seek.

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Possible Outcomes of a Meeting with the Press

Let us look at possible outcomes that might follow from a meeting with the press. For starters we should consider that you might simply refuse to be interviewed. Of course, assuming you do not want the tone of your refusal to become a story in itself, you must be polite when you refuse. Then the reporter will be left to speculate on why you refused, and there is danger that your refusal might stir up wild and damaging speculation about our movement. As such, while I think it might sometimes be wise to refuse, we will assume now that you do consent to be interviewed.

Consider the following four outcomes.

1. The reporter might deliver a front-page shocker of a story in which he portrays the free-nation movement as a large and evil threat to the civilized world, a threat that requires immediate attention of the world’s leading governments. Although this would be inaccurate, I think it could happen. From the viewpoint of the reporter this outcome would probably be the best, in that it would win him the most points. So I think you have to expect that the reporter will be looking for anything that might make the free-nation movement look ridiculous, corrupt, or threatening.

2. The reporter might deliver a negative story of smaller impact. This might show the free-nation movement to be a disturbing development which leading governments should monitor. Although this too would be inaccurate from our viewpoint as libertarians, I think it is a fairly likely outcome. This would be a decent outcome for the reporter, and it would be a bad outcome for you.

3. Considering favorable outcomes now, the reporter might write a glowing account of the free-nation movement and its promise to bring dignity and prosperity to millions who are downtrodden. But even if you could charm the reporter into believing this, I think it is unlikely that such an account would be published, because it threatens the myth that the American way is best. Statist readers might cancel their subscriptions to the publication. I believe the publishers and editors would not let such a story go to print. So this outcome, which would be the best for you, is not in the cards, I believe.

4. The reporter might write a favorable story of modest impact. It might portray the free-nation movement as an interesting oddity, possibly good for a few eccentric people, and not threatening to American interests. But, here again, I think such a report might be subtly disturbing to some readers, because it raises questions which no statists want to face. I doubt that the publishers and editors would approve it for publication. Assuming the story were not published, then the reporter would be disappointed, but you could be satisfied. If on the other hand the story were published, then I believe it would be given minimal exposure. For the reporter this outcome would be better than nothing. For you it would be the best for which you can hope.

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Do’s and Don’ts in Meeting the Press

I advise then that you aim for the fourth outcome (above). In this outcome, whether the story is published or not, you have passed through a minefield without injury. You can return your attention to where it can do us some good—to productive undertakings within the free-nation movement.

As such, your first priority in an interview with the media should be to mollify any suspicions that the reporter might have that the free-nation movement is dangerous. Be cordial. And certainly you can emphasize how the free nation will be absolutely non-aggressive as a neighbor.

Another way to appear non-threatening is to make it clear that we in the free-nation movement are not trying to impose our libertarian beliefs upon anyone else. We are not even trying to make converts. We are merely trying to make a private trade. Indeed, it is our desire to leave others alone in their own systems of belief which draws us to seek a place apart, where we can live peaceably in our unusual way. Notice that this live-and-let-live attitude, which is inherent to free-nation libertarians, is alien to majority-rule libertarians who, in order to get what they want, must rip the state away from terrified statists who know no other comfort.

Also it cannot hurt if you appear idealistic—even to the extent of being kooky. Just take one of the subjects which libertarians always try to explain to statists anyhow, such as the way free markets help the poorest people in society, or the way free markets can assure quality in medical care, or the way free markets can protect the environment, and explain this patiently and at length, as if you were talking to a friend who you knew to be interested and willing to listen all day.

Of course the reporter will not listen all day. But I believe you will always stay on safe terrain if you always head down such a path: Patiently explain the benefits of liberty until the reporter tires of you, and dismisses you.

Now, there are some things you should avoid. I hope you understand that you should not say:

Also, I believe you should avoid using sound bites. Now when I had a habit of running for office within the American political system, I sought publicity so I developed a sense for sound bites. I inserted striking phrases into my media interviews with some confidence that my words would be picked up and echoed. I was feeding the press the material that they needed to make colorful and tightly edited reports. And I think many other libertarian activists, using the popular-persuasion paradigm that we were all taught growing up in America, have developed a habit of giving sound bites to the media.

But I believe sound bites are counterproductive for a representative of the free-nation movement. Remember that we have more to lose than to gain from this exposure. You might give them a sound bite which is appropriate for the context—but their editors might use it in a different context, which they have created to smear the free-nation movement. So you should avoid being colorful.

Do not try to hide from the media. If a reporter calls and leaves a message asking you to call back, I think you should return the call and try to convey the image of a non-threatening idealist. This would be safer than neglecting to return the call, as this might arouse either the suspicion or the ire of the reporter.

And finally, do not try to deceive a reporter. If a deception were called for, and I cannot think of why it would be in our movement, it could succeed only if others in our movement acted the parts necessary to maintain the deception. But we do not have anything like a tight organization in which everyone plays from the same score. And the best reason for not attempting to deceive the media is that the truth is so much easier. As a libertarian you tell the simple truth when you portray yourself as a non-threatening idealist.

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Answers to Objections which Will Be Raised by Other Libertarians

This advice which I give will seem strange to many libertarians. Let me answer two objections.

First objection: But you never know, you might connect through the media to someone who might become the biggest supporter of the free-nation movement.

I think this objection is valid. But I think that perhaps the person who makes this objection has not understood the FNF work plan. Within the FNF work plan we need to reach only libertarians. Indeed, we need to reach only a small minority of libertarians. Remember that we can promote ourselves in specialized libertarian media and other publications (such as those for offshore investors). I believe that outreach in these special media will bring much better returns for our effort than outreach in the mainstream media. So, given that we have not begun to devote enough attention to gaining coverage in these special media, I believe that you waste your time if you spend it on publicity in the mainstream media.

Second objection: But if you get exposure in the media you might get some dribble of sense into the heads of some statists. You might lead them one step closer.

Again, it seems to me that a person who says this probably does not understand how FNF’s work, as I have attempted to establish it, differs from the work of other libertarian organizations. Almost every libertarian organization—except FNF—exists to serve the purpose of pumping sense into the heads of statists. Many of these are fine organizations. I support many of them. But FNF has a different purpose. If this objection seems cogent to you, perhaps you have found your way into the wrong organization.

The free-nation movement desperately needs workers. I beg you to forget the publicity-seeking habits which you learned as a popular-persuasion libertarian, and to focus instead on what needs to be done in this free-nation movement.

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The FNF Challenge: Can Libertarians Learn Faster than Statists?

In 1993 when I founded FNF I believed two things:

1. Some libertarians could establish a new free nation on real estate rented or purchased from a third-world regime—if those libertarians were organized in a way not yet achieved.

2. Settlers could leave first-world nations, with most of their wealth, to live in that new free nation.

In 1993 it seemed to me that there were probably few barriers to the plan—except for the lack of organization among libertarians. It seemed to me that the feat could be accomplished if libertarians organized within a few years, before existing governments had time to grow paranoid responses. And now, in 1999, it still seems possible to me.

But as time passes I worry. Existing governments are erecting barriers to the formation of a new free nation. Examples of these barriers are:

We know that statists of an earlier generation erected the Berlin Wall when it became clear to them that their best subjects tended to leak away toward freedom. This has not yet happened to such an extent in Western democracies because, I have the impression, voters and politicians in these democracies have not understood that democratic socialism must evolve toward totalitarian socialism.

While they remain ignorant of this we have the opportunity to leave with relatively little resistance. But I fear that nothing will prevent the authorities in Western democracies from erecting new Berlin Walls to prevent our exit. As they become more cynical and ruthless they will do what "needs to be done for the good" of their countries. I fear that the time may pass when the free-nation paradigm, as I have described it, may be fulfilled.

So I see a race between two processes of education. These are:

1. Libertarians learn they can win liberty for themselves by creating a new free nation.

2. Statists in Western democracies learn why the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall.

In order for the FNF work plan to succeed, I believe the first process must run faster than the second; libertarians must learn faster than statists. When I founded FNF, I bet that libertarians would win this race.

But now, after six years of repeating myself, I think I must have been wrong about something, because I see only miniscule evidence of libertarians applying themselves to the FNF work plan. I fear that barriers to our exit will be erected more rapidly than we organize to make good our escape.

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Publicity Hounds Could Endanger Our Movement

The race described above tells, in part, why I think that we should not seek publicity in the media. We need to educate libertarians—but not statists—about our new free nation.

And in this vein I worry that some majority-rule libertarians might hurt the free-nation movement. Since these libertarians naturally try to get all the publicity they can, they might flash the free-nation movement in the faces of statists, using our movement as evidence to try to convince statists that there is something wrong with the state. I fear that statists will react by erecting more barriers to the exit of free-nation libertarians. But majority-rule libertarians may not notice or care if they injure the free-nation movement, just so long as they generate press coverage.

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The mainstream media in Western democracies are inherently statist, because they are an essential part of that super-organization which grows around the state, and which includes the state as its backbone. These media have grown in a niche created by the state, in which majority-rule democracy creates opportunities to profit by carrying information through particular channels. As such, we should not be surprised to find workers in these media reluctant to transmit libertarian ideas, because our ideas would restructure society along new lines in which most media jobs would disappear, as they now exist. Rather, we should expect that the self-interest of workers in these media would cause them to view libertarian ideas with caution, suspicion, or outright hostility.

As such, I advise that free-nation libertarians treat a reporter from the media the way we would treat a dangerous beast in the wild. Give it respect. Try to keep a safe distance. But if you find yourself face-to-face with it, try to convince it that you are neither afraid of it nor dangerous to it. It may help if you present yourself as an oddity which is just passing through. D

Richard O. Hammer moved to North Carolina in 1982, when he started a graduate program in computer science at UNC-Chapel Hill. His favorite subject in high school was physics. He hopes one day to return to the study of that subject.

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