If you've spent time watching cable news shows, there's a good chance you've seen Terry Holt. He's a prolific talking head, and, also, frequently lobbies on behalf of health insurance companies. He says that he tells cable news producers about his lobbying work, but whether they disclose that to viewers is up to them.
We Could Be Raindrops
Artist: by Telegrams
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Squaring off in the power grid, Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky and Republican strategist Terry Holt. You both have 20 seconds to make your case. Mr. Holt?
TERRY HOLT: Well, I, I think the politics are convenient to go after hedge fund managers, but the more likely person to be affected here is a group of people who are developing real estate in your average hometown, who pay taxes there. And that Congress thinks they're going to raise 24 billion dollars over ten years. I mean, that’s -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Terry Holt in one of his innumerable appearances as a conservative cable news talking head on CNN, FOX News and MSNBC. He certainly has the credentials for it. He’s worked as a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, as a national spokesman for the Bush/Cheney ’04 election campaign, as communications director for former House Majority Leader Richard Armey and as senior advisor to the Republican National Committee. Currently, he represents an array of clients, including the lobbying group of health insurers called America’s Health Insurance Plans, or AHIP. Holt says he always informs cable talk show producers of his relevant business interests, and he says while the shows reliably inform viewers of his political career, they are less consistent when it comes to revealing his lobbying or public relations activities. We called CNN, FOX News and MSNBC, seeking comment on their disclosure policies and practices. They all declined. As for Holt, he would prefer that TV viewers were always informed of his various lives.
TERRY HOLT: It’s extremely important that if I go on television and I talk about health insurance reform that people understand where I'm coming from, and that’s why I've said that I believe disclosure is crucial in that circumstance. But in the vast majority of the political programs and on the political topics I discuss, they aren't on issues per se; they're on politics. I'm going on today on CNBC, for example, to talk about the stimulus package. I don't have any direct client interest in that topic. They're inviting me on because I'm a Republican, because I have a particular predictable view [LAUGHS] of government spending programs. So there’s no real need, in that case, to tell the American people that, you know, I have X or Y or Z client.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it’s the responsibility of a guest to disclose their lobbying ties?
TERRY HOLT: I would leave that to the guest, because everybody is in a different situation. Most of the folks that were mentioned in Sebastian’s article were more lobbyist than public relations type, and there is a difference, there. I think it might be a shade of gray for most observers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to say it’s a shade of gray for me. You are getting paid to articulate their point of view.
TERRY HOLT: That’s exactly right, because as a public relations person I'm in the business of relating publicly. [LAUGHS] And so, most health care reporters know that I am affiliated with America’s Health Insurance Plans. It’s just good business. And that’s why I go back to the point I made about the difference between a lobbyist and a communications strategist. Lobbyists do take particular positions on specific bills, and in those cases it’s extremely important that they tell people where they're coming from because I think at that point there are potential conflicts of interest on particular pieces of legislation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to say, in all honesty, that I'm not buying the big difference here between lobbyists and public relations people, because the fact is, in very simple terms, what people are expecting when they watch these programs is that people are arguing the case on the basis of the merits and not because of any financial gain.
TERRY HOLT: But you said that people expect these guests on these shows to -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Be judging the issues on the merits.
TERRY HOLT: On the merits, right. I think that that’s not my job, to judge it on - strictly on the merits. I'm being asked for my political analysis, and politics is way more than just merits. It’s sometimes perceptions. You know, there’s millions of different factors in determining whether something is politically viable or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re saying that the public, in watching cable news programs -
TERRY HOLT: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - ought to have, should have, probably does have an expectation that they're going to receive bipartisan spin.
TERRY HOLT: I think balance is really important because, you know, the nature of political debate is opinions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you’re saying more or less fact-free bipartisan spin.
TERRY HOLT: I would always say that your arguments are better if you’re using facts to make them, right? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they're optional.
TERRY HOLT: But, facts are also part of a broader perception game that’s going on around political issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since I think what you’re saying is that the producers, the guests and the audience all understand that these are gladiatorial shout fests, I guess it doesn't really matter all that much if anybody discloses anything. You already know what side they're on when they walk in, what difference does it make how they got there?
TERRY HOLT: Well, that’s an argument that could find some adherence. I think that when I have a client who has a direct interest in what I'm on television talking about, that I at least tell the producer. If the producer chooses to use it or not, I think that’s ultimately a decision that they make.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've had a long career in politics. Do you ever wonder why you go on these shows?
TERRY HOLT: Well, when I first started doing campaigns I wanted to win them and I wanted my issues to prevail. And I still like that, but I have become more satisfied with being part of a good process. I'd rather have a fair election than win an election. I like to have the debate, and I think that most people understand that you don't win a debate by litigating it on television, that this is a bit of theater.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. Do you ever feel – for lack of a better word – just kind of icky?
TERRY HOLT: My goodness, no. I have to represent my views. I have to come up with valid arguments. I tell people all the time, it’s better to be liked than to prove your point, especially on television. You’re going to be more persuasive, over time, if you avoid the shouting and you be respectful to the other side. The political debate is, by its nature, partisan, and I - actually relish that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Terry, thank you very much.
TERRY HOLT: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Terry Holt is a lobbyist, a public relations professional and, for the purposes of this interview, a Republican pundit who frequently appears on cable news talk shows.