Q&A with Mitch Kokai, communications director at the John Locke Foundation

Mitch Kokai is director of communications at the John Locke Foundation, a think tank based in Raleigh, N.C. Prior to taking that job in 2005, Kokai worked as a reporter at News 14 Carolina, a regional cable news channel, and at radio stations WCHL, WPTF and WENC. In this interview, conducted by email, Kokai talks about his work at the John Locke Foundation and its role in North Carolina media and politics.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. The official title is director of communications, but the John Locke Foundation’s communications duties are divided among several different people.

I am primarily responsible for dealing with the news media, writing and distributing news releases, overseeing content for the Carolina Journal Radio program and the CarolinaJournal.tv video site, and blogging for JLF’s primary blog, The Locker Room.

Day-to-day duties include:

  • reading research reports and translating them into a form that might pique the interest of a person who works outside the world of public policy;
  • recording John Locke Foundation events, placing that content on the Web and editing sound for the radio program;
  • conducting interviews for video, radio and print purposes;
  • scanning state and national news sources for material worthy of promotion on the blog; and steering print and broadcast reporters to JLF resources for their stories.

I also help with copy-editing JLF’s monthly Carolina Journal print publication.

Q. You worked in radio and cable TV news for many years. What was it like to move from straight news to a job that advocates points of view and changes in law and policy?

A. Working for an organization that openly expresses its viewpoint is actually easier than trying to maintain the fiction of objectivity. If the material is going to prove useful to more than just the cheering sections on the ideological left and right, it must address arguments fairly from multiple perspectives. Regardless, people who follow the John Locke Foundation’s work closely have an inkling of the positions we take and can judge our work accordingly.

In contrast, a media outlet dedicated to “straight news” actively promotes the myth that its news coverage is unbiased. The choice of stories to cover or ignore; the relative weight given to the mix of stories on the printed page, in the newscast, or on the Web; the sources interviewed; the facts used and omitted; and the structure and content of the stories are all based on the organization’s biases.

Pretending otherwise is not particularly helpful. It’s nice not to have to take part in that game.

Q. On occasion, you write opinion pieces for Carolina Journal Online. How does the site handle editing and headline writing for that kind of content?

A. Every page of the Carolina Journal print publication gets at least three rounds of copy editing. Our publisher is our chief page designer and writes headlines, but at least two other people read each headline.

For Carolina Journal Online, the managing editor typically handles most copy editing and headline writing. He will ask for help if the column or news story merits an extra set of eyes.

Q. Some of the foundation’s critics say its views are over-represented in North Carolina media. How would you respond?

A. This is an interesting topic that could lead to a lengthy debate about fundamental elements of the political process. I’ll try to spare your readers from that debate, though, and hit just a few key points.

First, the criticism tends to emanate from people who hold a fundamentally different view about public policy and the role of government. They don’t like our viewpoint and don’t want to encounter it at all when they read, watch or listen to a news story.

Almost any quotation featuring JLF is going to rankle these folks. Their concern has less to do with volume of JLF representation than with the fact that JLF’s comments get any representation at all. They are entitled to their opinion. We don’t particularly care much about their criticism.

We also pay little attention to those who draw a paycheck based on their efforts to oppose our viewpoints. An open-minded observer of the North Carolina political process will notice fairly quickly that certain organizations are populated by staffers who spend most of their time engaging in what I like to call “argument by adjective.” Rather than engage in valuable political debate, they spend their time writing about “evil right-wing extremists.” Remove the invective from their commentary, and you’ll find there’s nothing left. Everyone has to make a living; I’m glad I don’t have to do it that way.

Setting those critics aside, there is another much more interesting reason why the John Locke Foundation might seem to be over-represented in the media. Almost every news story involving North Carolina government revolves around efforts to urge an official or agency to do something. It might be approving legislation. It might be rewriting a policy. It might be adding to the budget of an existing government program.

In some cases, there might be a partisan divide among elected officials on the issue in question. In that case, it’s easy for a reporter to talk to a Democrat and a Republican, and perhaps a Libertarian, and feel pretty confident that the bases are covered relatively well. In other instances, though, key players in the story are not necessarily elected officials. Often the players are interest groups seeking some type of government action.

How does a reporter find an opposing view when the advocate for a particular position is an interest group seeking government action? Even without deadline pressure, it can be very difficult for the reporter to track down a source who is going to feel a negative impact from the policy the interest group is promoting.

Does this mean there is no such person who will face a negative impact? No.

It’s often true that the negative impacts of a particular policy will play out in the future and in ways that are hard to document today. For instance, how does the reporter go about identifying a small business owner or entrepreneur today who is not going to be able to expand his business two or three years down the road because of a harmful new regulation or higher tax burden?

In these instances, it’s easier to turn to a group like the John Locke Foundation that focuses on the unintended negative consequences of government policies that might sound like great ideas on their surface. Many of our appearances in media reports stem from a reporter’s efforts to contact us, rather than our efforts to promote our own work.

At times, we are unable to help those reporters because they call us about issues (immigration policy and social issues come to mind) that are not part of the John Locke Foundation’s focus. But if we can provide a useful comment that offers an alternative perspective to that offered by the individuals or interest groups pushing for government action, we do.

Q. On the other hand, there are more sources of news and voices of opinion than ever before. How can organizations like yours get their messages out amid the clamor of online news and social media?

A. As the number of news and opinion sources proliferates, those that will fare best are the ones that develop a good reputation. Traditional media outlets can rely on their brand names for as long as those brands carry weight with news consumers. Others must rely on developing an audience that finds the product useful and reliable. We aim to fill that role.

People with a free-market, limited-government perspective might enjoy our work, but they will not find an echo chamber for the Republican Party. People with a left-of-center political perspective might not agree with our editorial conclusions, but those with an open mind will find value in the research and data used in constructing our arguments.

Plus our news reporting supplements coverage they can find from other sources. Not counting my own broadcast news background, the Carolina Journal staff has somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years of combined experience working in traditional mainstream media newsrooms.

Yes, we show our viewpoint in the types of stories we cover, but that makes us no different than those traditional outlets. By presenting a consistent product, we hope to be a regular part of concerned citizens’ news and information mix.