Journalists say it over and over: journalism is the opposite
of public relations. We're supposed to be afflicting the comfortable,
comforting the afflicted, puncturing holes in the smooth stories played
out by politicians, corporations, churches. I came to journalism by way on nonprofit, good-cause PR, and try to remember that the hallmarks of good PR – super-clear stories with
exact endings, data that all point the same way – and suggesting that
they don't make good journalism.
But we're in an era where PR masking as journalism has defined our politics, with sometimes tragic results. So how do we interact with power, when they've learned how to do what we do?
Corporate and governmental institutions, the ones we're supposed to be “afflicting,” have borrowed so many of journalism's tools for their PR campaigns that it makes all of us wonder how to do something that doesn't feel the same way.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance (along with a bunch of other Columbia folks) to learn a little about the, ahem, landmark Food Lion lawsuit against ABC in 1997, when an ABC exposé of the supermarket chain was upended by a sly, Swift-Boaty PR campaign on the part of the corporation. Their lawsuit and slick video news release cast deep shadows on a 2-year-long, solidly researched piece by ABC's investigative team.
If you showed the CBS film “Tailwind” or Fahrenheit 9/11, which most agreed didn't include enough dissenting voices, and the Food Lion Corporation's video “debunking” ABC News' story on their stores, and didn't say the latter was produced by a corporate PR firm, and asked us which looked more like balanced journalism – we might instinctively have given the edge to the latter. It asks questions. It doesn't, onscreen, say “Food Lion is a lovely company with terrific stores.”
All it does is sow doubt -- the hallmark that , we're told, distinguishes journalism from propaganda. Similarly, the organizations opposing the teaching of evolution in schools and corporations fighting the Kyoto treaty knew only that they needed to create, in the public's mind, an impression that the facts about each issue, as established by scientific argument, were far less settled than they are.
In the latter cases, of course, they preyed upon the scientific illiteracy of journalists as well as their readers/viewers, until both evolution and global warming could be scoffed at as “just a theory.” Still,they did more than distribute talking points: they convened panels, published books, made videos of their own. Like Food Lionn, they never said “God created the world in 15 minutes” or “I want my SUV.” They did some reporting, even, and certainly craft in presentation – all for the explicit goal of “casting doubt” in enough people's minds so that their lobbyists could go to work. When there is no scientific controversy, create one that will blind a tired legislator.
Those tactics, on the part of companies and political campaigns, have always been a fact of life, of course What's slightly new, I think, is their blatant incorporation into how government does its business – which has blindsided those assigned to cover it
“Ninety-five percent of what goes on in Washington is never covered,” Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said a few weeks ago in a talk at Columbia. “If it's out of public view,” he added, “the public has plenty of time to do whatever it wants.”
He said this even when we every major newspaper and network pours more money and reporters into its Washington bureau every day. These days, the Washington desk is probably bigger than the foreign desk, for most. We should have asked him, and ourselves: so what are all the Washington reporters doing, then? And given what Holbooke was there to talk about, we could have asked: what are the Pentagon reporters doing?
Holbrooke was speaking mostly of a government's foreign entanglements, which the public is assumed not to care about anyway unless their sons are being shot at. And when they are, as with Iraq, the press is afraid of saying so – lest they be accused of “losing the war,” as they're were with Vietnam.
“In addition to the fact that the press doesn’t want to report bad news,” he said, “they were intimidated by an aggressive administration.”
As a mostly exclusively print reporter, I didn't feel particularly addressed by most of his complaints about what TV news will and won't cover. But when he talked about having the 10th-anniversary coverage of Srebrenica cancelled for sexy coverage of storms in Florida (he said”storm warnings,” but you know he meant Anderson Cooper lashed to a tree somewhere), he unintentionally told us he'd misspoke before.
The Washington press corps, the Pentagon scribes, weren't intimidated as much as they were seduced – in this administration, by campaign-style tactics and campaign-style cosseting of their needs. I'm not talking about the out-and-out bribery of a few columnists, or even yesterday's news about the literal feeding of Iraqi reporters.
I'm not even talking about the high life of receptions and tchotkes
they've come to expect, though I chuckled hard when I read Margaret
Carlson's confession about life on the Bush campaign plane:
“There were Dove bars and designer water on demand,and a bathroom stocked like Martha Stewart’s guest suite. Dinner at seven featured lobster ravioli.” (Thanks, Digby.) And this isn't the place to talk about the implications of the fact that when a journo makes six figures, their kids go to school with those they're assigned to cover.
I'm talking more about the comfortable volley of press releases, color-coded fact sheets, discussions “on background” to explain to the hapless writer what's really going on. Again, this has been going on forever: I remember the first Persian Gulf War and its aftermath, and how frustrated I was that neither Eric Schmitt of the New York Times and National Public Radio seemed to say much beyond the news releases I also had in front of me.
The Rove era, with its carefully constructed campaigns to cast doubt on the patriotism of decorated Marines and civil servants with 30 years of experience in the State Department, is in some ways bringing that art to a new level. It's unapologetic for tactics like bribing Armstrong Williams or Iraqi journalists, and sees every policy decision purely as a public relations matter – because that's how you stay in power, and it's good to be the king. Journalists have gotten just a touch bolder as this grows more stark, but their capacity to be blinded by high-level PR still manifests itself. (I'm still arguing with my partner, who dropped out of journalism school during the O.J. Simpson trial, about yesterday's Times front page, which reproduced Rove's VICTORY stage set and its literal reflected glow of the Marines. Was it meant as a self-evident, Daily Show style irony, as I hoped?)
Our class of 2006/7 could nickname itself “the Judith Miller class,” with the tragicomic figure of Miller hanging over our very first all-class lecture from Jill Abramson and ballooning from there, and now that Woodward's ever-huger shadow against the same backdrop has made her story seem puny. I think even if we're not trying to cover the government, deconstructings its propaganda is a lifelong occupation. And for some, trying not to get seduced along the way is an even bigger job.
Not that many of us are getting invited into Karl Rove's inner circle. Though if it could happen to Bob Woodward, it could happen to any of us.