Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A rant about On The Media and journalistic criticism

I found myself listening to NPR's On the Media in the car this afternoon. It's not something I do often. I have a huge problem with the current state of journalistic criticism, a field that now seems to consist entirely of  self-serving, self-satisfied trivialists and tribalists united by a blood oath not to acknowledge any of the serious problems facing journalism. OMD is often among the worst offenders.

I got lured into this story partially because the topic (brutal regimes hiring PR firms) interested me and mainly because there was nothing else interesting on the radio.

Here was the introduction:

"The New York Times reported this week that the Assad family employs Western PR firms to polish its image for the rest of the world. A few years ago, Harper’s contributing editor Ken Silverstein went undercover and approached PR firms as a fake representative of a tyrant who needed to improve his image. He talks to Bob about what he learned."

The interview was carried out with the usual mixture of smugness and breathlessness. The superiority was understandable if annoying (they were, after all, talking about apologists for dictators), but the surprise was truly difficult to fathom. Silverstein told about firms competing for these huge contracts as if the behavior was unprecedented. Not only was what he described pretty much what you'd expect; it was also perfectly consistent with what we see from law firms, lobbyists and consultants. In other words, there wasn't really a story there.

Silverstein then described what he called the "dirty little secret" of the industry, namely that the work (according to him) wasn't that effective, an assertion he supported with an anecdote about a firm that had bragged about getting a client off a ten-worst list by getting it moved down to the eleventh spot. He didn't seem to realize that this point undercut the importance of much of what he had said before (why should we care about dictators hiring PR firms if those firms are ineffective?). Nor did he seem to realize that in this context, moving past threshold values like 1, 5, and 10 really is a big deal.

Buried in the middle of this, Silverstein quickly and casually threw out the following: the firms promised clients that the firms would "write and place op-eds in American newspapers [and] recruit academics or think tanks to put their name on it." I at that point assumed that even Garfield (who is truly terrible at his job) would jump in and and ask for details, but the subject held no more interest for him than it did for Silverstein.

In any sane world, "Sociopathic, genocidal dictators plant propaganda in respected news outlets through think tanks and paid experts" would be the lede on a program about the media while "PR costs more when you're caught doing horrible things but it may not be worth the money" would be, at best, a side note. Unfortunately, OMD tends to follow the Jack Shafer school of journalistic criticism: sins are weighted by the sinner's membership and position in the journalistic tribe (multiple examples available on request).

The PR firms described here are certainly sleazy but not in a surprising or perhaps even unethical way. I would certainly have more respect for a PR firm or law firm that refused to have dealings with these regimes but I'm not sure any rules are being broken by taking them on as clients. As for the suggestion that these monsters are not getting their money's worth, I'm not entirely sure I buy the argument and even if it's true, I don't find it particularly newsworthy or worrisome. Lots of goods and services aren't worth the price and if someone is going to get screwed on a deal, I'd actually prefer it to be a murderous dictator.

By comparison, there are clear and serious ethical breeches by the editors who print unvetted op-eds by experts with undisclosed conflicts of interest and by the reporters who cite commissioned studies as if they represented reliable, impartial research, but under the Shafer system, the offenses of the PR firms are more heavily weighted because they are committed by outsiders.

I know this inter/intra-group explanation may seem like a bit of a jump, but there's clearly a problem with journalism and accountability. If you have an alternate theory, I'm open to suggestions.

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