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.
Now, during a second rise of public relations, we are in an era of massive contraction in traditional journalism. Bureaus have closed, thousands of reporters have been laid off, once-great newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News have died.
The Pew Center took a look at the impact of these changes last year in a study of the Baltimore news market. The report, “How News Happens,” found that while new online outlets had increased the demand for news, the number of original stories spread out among those outlets had declined. In one example, Pew found that area newspapers wrote one-third the number of stories about state budget cuts as they did the last time the state made similar cuts in 1991. In 2009, Pew said, The Baltimore Sun produced 32 percent fewer stories than it did in 1999.
Moreover, even original reporting often bore the fingerprints of government and private public relations. Mark Jurkowitz, associate director the Pew Center, said the Baltimore report concentrated on six major story lines: state budget cuts, shootings of police officers, the University of Maryland’s efforts to develop a vaccine, the auction of the Senator Theater, the installation of listening devices on public busses, and developments in juvenile justice. It found that 63 percent of the news about those subjects was generated by the government, 23 percent came from interest groups or public relations, and 14 percent started with reporters.
An example: when the University of Maryland announced on July 22, 2009 that it would test the new swine flu vaccine, the university press release read this way: “The research is a first step toward the US government’s stated goal of developing a safe and effective vaccine.”
The Daily Record newspaper in Maryland, Pew said, was first out with the story: “Research on the vaccine is the first step toward the US government’s aggressive goal of developing a vaccine for the virus.”
Tom Linthicum, executive editor of The Daily Record, said that first story reflected the reality of the Internet age. “It’s kind of like working for the wire services in the old days,” he said. “You write the short lede to get it up there first. You come back the next day and flesh it out.”
Linthicum said the vaccine story, while important, was not really in The Daily Record’s typical coverage area—the paper is more business-oriented. “We came back and fleshed it out some; frankly, we did not flesh it out a lot,” he said. “I think we did with it about what we could given our other priorities.”