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.

Eric Alterman, a professor at Brooklyn College and a columnist at The Nation, said skillful PR people can exploit this zone to great effect. “They are able to provide data that for journalistic purposes is entirely credible,” he said. “The information is true enough. It is slanted. It is propagandistic. But it is not false.”

PR Up—Journalism Down

So what has changed? Isn’t this article yet another in a long line of complaints, starting with Silas Bent’s counting of stories generated by publicity agents in one day’s issue of The New York Times in 1926 (174) or Peter Odegard’s 1930 lament that “reporters today are little more than intellectual mendicants who go from one publicity agent or press bureau to another seeking ‘handouts’”? It is, in a way. But the context has changed. Journalism, the counterweight to corporate and government PR, is shrinking.

“We are coming out of a period when news organizations were extraordinarily prosperous and able to insulate themselves from a lot of pressures,” said Paul Starr, a sociology professor at Princeton University and author of The Creation of the Media. “The balance of power has shifted.”

When public relations began its ascent in the early twentieth century, journalism was rising alongside it. The period saw the ferocious work of the muckrakers, the development of the great newspaper chains, and the dawn of radio and, later, television. Journalism of the day was not perfect; sometimes it was not even good. But it was an era of expansion that eventually led to the powerful press of the mid to late century.

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.