The dangers are clear. As PR becomes ascendant, private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, and to do so without the public knowing it. “What we are seeing now is the demise of journalism at the same time we have an increasing level of public relations and propaganda,” McChesney said. “We are entering a zone that has never been seen before in this country.”

The First Modern PR Man

Modern public relations was born from a train wreck.

Michael Schudson, a journalism professor at Columbia University, cjr contributor, and author of Discovering the News, said modern public relations started when Ivy Lee, a minister’s son and a former reporter at the New York World, tipped reporters to an accident on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Before then, railroads had done everything they could to cover up accidents. But Lee figured that crashes, which tend to leave visible wreckage, were hard to hide. So it was better to get out in front of the inevitable story.

The press release was born. Schudson said the rise of the “publicity agent” created deep concern among the nation’s leaders, who distrusted a middleman inserting itself and shaping messages between government and the public. Congress was so concerned that it attached amendments to bills in 1908 and 1913 that said no money could be appropriated for preparing newspaper articles or hiring publicity agents.

But World War I pushed those concerns to the side. The government needed to rally the public behind a deeply unpopular war. Suddenly, publicity agents did not seem so bad. Woodrow Wilson picked a former newspaperman, George Creel, to head his new Committee on Public Information in 1917. The group cranked out thousands of press releases in support of the war and started a speakers bureau that eventually grew to 75,000 people, all giving morale-boosting talks across the country.

“After the war, PR becomes a very big deal,” Schudson said. “It was partly stimulated by the war and the idea of journalists and others being employed by the government as propagandists.”

Many who worked for the massive wartime propaganda apparatus found an easy transition into civilian life. Samuel Insull, president of Chicago Edison and an early radio magnate, launched a campaign on behalf of electric utilities, which, according to Schudson, was the most far-reaching public relations effort of the era. It prompted an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and a new raft of angry reports about the increasing power of PR.

People “became more conscious that they were not getting direct access, that it was being screened for them by somebody else,” Schudson said.

But there was no turning back. PR had become a fixture of public life. Concern about the invisible filter of public relations became a steady drumbeat in the press. From the classic 1971
CBS documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon, warning that the military was using public relations tricks to sell a bigger defense budget, to reports that PR wizards had ginned up testimony about horrors in Kuwait before the first Gulf War, the theme was that spin doctors were pulling the strings.

Gary McCormick, former chairman of the Public Relations Society of America, said that was unfair. McCormick acknowledged that there have been PR abuses, but he said most public relations people try to steer clear of falsehood. And he makes a pretty logical argument: lying does not work, because you are almost always going to get caught. And when you do, it makes it worse for your client.

“If I burn you, I am out of business,” said McCormick, whose organization has a membership of twenty-one thousand. He concedes that can be a tough message to relay to a client facing bad press. “The problem is when you get caught up with a client, and the business drives you to tell a message differently than you would advise,” McCormick said.

McCormick is right: lies are not ubiquitous, and they are not the heart of the matter. The problem is that there is a large gray zone between the truth and a lie.

John Sullivan , a former reporter for The New York Times and The Providence Journal, is a freelance journalist. This story is being jointly published with ProPublica.