Magazine article The Masthead

Can Lobbyists Sway Editorial Boards?

Magazine article The Masthead

Can Lobbyists Sway Editorial Boards?

Article excerpt

Nearly every week, lobbyists come to The Hart-ford Courant for a hearing with editorial writers. These special-interests representatives are not just the Gucci-loafered, registered power-brokers who haunt the statehouses. They include school board members, animal activists, third-party candidates for office, local business executives, and on and on.

Their objectives, of course, are to sway editorial writers toward their causes. But are these trips worthwhile? Do lobbyists, in fact, make any difference?

That question has been extensively studied in political science circles as it applies to Congress, but not in journalism circles as it applies to journalists.

Yet what political scientists say about the influence of special interests on lawmakers will sound awfully familiar to any editorial board member who has sat through weekly meetings with local worthies and foreign dignitaries.

For a law school course on government, I read dozens of treatises on lobbyists and their impact on lawmakers in Washington. Then I talked with editors at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and, of course, my own newspaper. They pretty much agreed on a couple of points: Special interests have become a part of editorial writers' professional lives, just as they have become a huge factor in Washington. Lobbyists can influence lawmakers and writers, but not as much as their enemies fear they do. They don't talk lawmakers or editorial writers into adopting entirely new positions. They can, however, help lawmakers and editorial writers shape policy positions in subtle, incremental ways.

Lobbyists are increasingly issue specialists, and so are the government staffs they deal with.

"As government activities and regulations have grown, the value of policy specialists who understand the complex Washington environment has appreciated," wrote Hugh Heclo in his essay "Issue Networks and the Executive Establishment." Later in the essay, he writes, "Academia, think tanks, and people with specialized credentials have been gaining in importance."

The demands of interest groups are eating up legislators' time. Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, complained to Jonathan Rauch, author of Demosclerosis: "It's to the point where there are so many causes organized ... that there's very little space left;" He compared himself to an overbooked dentist jumping from chair to chair.

Editors at the Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Hartford Courant estimate that they see some 200 lobbyists yearly. For example, on March 26,1999, the day I interviewed John Fund of the Journal, the United Nations had just opened its session in New York, and representatives were asking for editorial board meetings. These visits were in addition to what Fund described as the usual meetings with "heads of state, CEOs, military guerrilla leaders. …

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