Monday, March 16, 2015

Corporate PR vs. Beat Sweetening -- different but not that different

Brad DeLong recently provided an interesting complement to our ongoing flack-n-hacks thread (which Andrew just joined). Just to review, we were talking about how PR firms (the 'flacks' in question) provide leads, leg-work and even finished  copy in exchange for favorable coverage. DeLong uses this embarrassing Politico puff piece of Stephen Moore to examine the way journalists trade favorable coverage for access and scoops (which is, more or less, Politico's unofficial mission statement).

This piece is what my old next-door office neighbor Jack DeVore, then Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's Assistant Secretary for Public Relations, called a "beat sweetener": the point of such an article is not to inform the article's readers about some person regarded as either being influential or typical in an interesting way, but rather to burnish the reputation of the subject. As such, it omits key parts of the story and so misleads the readers in the interest of achieving that goal. The hope is that the subject of the article will at some future point then open up and preferentially dish to the reporter who has done him the favor of burnishing his reputation.

That is it. No observations about publishing the wrong numbers. No observations about how Stephen Moore has been a huge backer of Sam Brownback's Kansas tax-cut state revenue disaster. Nothing about how Herman Cain' 9-9-9 plan blew up in his face because no analyst who could add could get it to work arithmetically no matter how many thumbs they put on these scale. No critical quotes from anybody about the quality of Stephen Moore's analytical work--which would have been the easiest thing in the world to get. In fact, no positive quotes at all from any economist about Stephen Moore as an economist or an analyst.

So the message I get from this is that there is, still, an enormous need for publications and platforms that will call a spade a goddam shovel, afflict the comfortable, entertain-along-with-informing rather than entertain-instead-of-informing, and be trusted information intermediaries in which the words on the page are there to inform you about what is what rather than to mislead you in the hope that those in whose interest you have been misled will at some point in the future dish the writer a scoop.

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