Toxic Sludge and Journalists

A romantic mythology surrounds the journalistic profession. We like to think that reporters are all like the guys on N.Y. News, relentlessly digging until the truth is exposed and villains receive their just punishment. For the people who really shape the news--the public relations industry--this myth serves an obvious useful function. It is also a useful myth for the news media itself, which perpetuates the image of the crusading press with frequent self-congratulatory editorials and newspaper mastheads proclaiming that "the only security of all is a free press." In reality, according to scholars who study the media, at least 40% of all "news" today flows virtually unedited from public relations offices. Media critics note that the media habitually fails to report on itself. It also fails to report on the PR industry. To do so would reveal the extent of its dependency on PR for access, sources, quotes, stories and ideas. The fact of this dependency is, of course, common knowledge among reporters and PR professionals, and you can find frequent references to it in leading trade publications. As an example, take the recent review which appeared in O'Dwyer's PR Services Report describing our new book, titled Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. According to O'Dwyer's, the book "carries a loaded title, but is a fairly straightforward insider account of the doings of PR people. . . . The book won't startle those working in the PR business, but it promises to be a real eye-opener to people who view PR as nothing more than harmless press agent puffery." If this assessment is correct, PR professionals are even more cynical than we imagined when we wrote the book. Toxic Sludge Is Good For You describes a giant, secretive propaganda-for-hire industry that works behind the scenes to spin the news and twist public opinion, networking with spies, infiltrators, lobbyists and influence peddlers to dominate political debate and undermine democracy. Today's PR firms organize phony "astroturf" grassroots groups that lobby for the tobacco, automobile and insurance industries, and create biased "video news releases" that often air unedited on the evening news, fooling viewers into thinking they are watching TV journalism. PR practitioners help the food and chemical industries deep-six books about dangerous pesticides, use "greenwashing" to divide and conquer environmentalists, and are presently campaigning to clean up the image of toxic sewage sludge, renaming it "biosolids" and calling it a "vitamin pill for the earth" so sewage treatment plants can sell it as fertilizer to unsuspecting American farmers. One firm, Sawyer/Miller, even masterminded a PR campaign on behalf of the government of Colombia, one of the world's most egregious human rights abusers and a compliant haven for the world's worst drug cartels. By the time Sawyer/Miller got through, President Clinton was referring to Colombia as a democratic leader and "one of our strongest allies . . . in the effort to free the world of the scourge of narcotics trafficking." These revelations may shock you, and they ought to shock even seasoned flacks, but as O'Dwyer's observes, practices that most people find outrageous are simply another day at the office for PR megafirms like Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton. Accusing the PR industry of manipulating the truth is like criticizing sharks for eating meat, or snakes for poisoning their victims. They do what they do because it's in their nature. If God had intended otherwise, he wouldn't have given them fangs. Actually, the people we ought to be criticizing are the journalists who let the PR industry get away with manipulating the truth. With the computer information banks and other information resources now available, investigative journalism is easier to practice than ever before. Reporters could and should use these resources to dig behind the scenes, exposing the PR industry's manipulations and the scandals that emanate from corporate boardrooms and government bureaucracies. Instead, we get superficial journalism, news by press release and endless regurgitation of easy-to-cover no-brainers like the O.J. Simpson case. At the very least, the news media ought to offer truth in labeling. "News stories" that are merely edited press releases ought to include disclaimers identifying the PR firm, government agency or corporation that wrote them. Video news releases should include subtitles stating "footage supplied by Hill & Knowlton PR." C'mon you guys in newsrooms, clean up your act. Do the job you're paid for. If you try, you might discover that even the public relations industry is rooting for you to succeed. After all, as PR pro Kirk Hallahan recently observed, new technology has already made you superfluous. "Today, with many more options available, PR professionals are much less dependent upon mass media for publicity," Hallahan stated in the Summer 1994 Public Relations Quarterly. "In the decade ahead, the largest American corporations could underwrite entire, sponsored channels. Organizations such as Procter & Gamble might circumvent public media altogether and subsidize programming that combines promotional and otherwise conducive messages--news, talk shows, infomercials, or sponsored entertainment or sports. . . . Channel sponsors will be able reach coveted super-heavy users . . . with a highly tailored message over which they exert complete control." But Hallahan hopes to preserve a place at the table for the traditional news media, and he worries that its usefulness may be lost if "media organizations cheapen the value of their product. . . . When a news medium covered a story in the past, the information sponsor gained more than mere exposure. The client, product or cause gained salience, stature and legitimacy." That legitimacy will be lost, he warns, if the public ceases to see a difference between news and paid propaganda. "While PR people might circumvent the press occasionally, we aren't going to want to do so all the time," Hallahan writes. "We can't kill the goose that laid the golden egg. A loss of public reliance upon and confidence in the mass media could be devastating."

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