Wednesday, May 27, 2009
HOW POLITICIANS AND THEIR PUBLICISTS TOOK OVER THE PRESS
By Gary Tilzer
Did you know that over the last couple of years a battle has raged between the PR people and the press to see who would control the news? You didn’t. Well, neither did most of the journalists. That’s why the PR people won.
The nation’s newspapers have already tacitly acknowledged their imminent demise, laying off reporters en masse, eliminating sections, replacing investigative reporting with fluff, and barely coming out with new stories any more on weekends. This decay has caused devastating industry-wide shockwaves to the overall quality of journalism in this country, since the majority of television news shows now consist of anchors reading stories from the morning paper, and internet news sources like The Huffington Post and The Raw Story largely depend upon the daily papers for content.
Meanwhile, politicians, developers, and CEOs have rubbed their hands together with nefarious glee, thrilled to finally be rid of the pesky reporters that used to keep them honest. While the wounded media has stumbled, politicians have quickly seized the opportunity to spin, scheme, and steal with impunity – and they’ve done so with greater skill than ever before.
Rather than hiring staffers to work on boring stuff like legislation, our elected officials have instead used our tax dollars to hire marketing gurus to give them fabulous, ultra-chic PR makeovers. Take State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who recently recruited Christopher Sealey to be the State Senate’s first ever “creative director”. Sealey, who, according to a mind-numbingly vacuous profile in New York Magazine, “was shocked the government would want someone like me,” is a top-of-the-line image craftsman, who makes big money turning the stodgy into the super cool.
“You look at Obama, and he created nothing short of a brand for himself,” enthuses Sealey. “We’re not trying to create a brand (we’re already elected), but we do want better communications techniques. I’m in charge of the design, photography, and multimedia that comes out of the Senate. We’ve brought in designers who have worked for Nike, Spike TV, and HBO; we just launched a new website; and we’re getting in touch with people on Facebook and Twitter.”
In other words, Smith, like so many other politicians now, realized that it was more important to look like he was doing a good job than to actually do one. And by populating his staff with savvy marketers, PR veterans, and former journalists with could shill stories to their much lower-paid former colleagues, he could turn, for instance, months of incompetence in Albany dealing with the MTA fare hikes that ended in a stop-gap 25 cent increase, into a slew of glowing front page stories in the media, praising Smith for saving the City from worse financial ruin.
Smith’s shrewd PR machine is just one of the dynamos driving the media these days. Nearly every successful elected official has staffers whose main job is to cozy up to reporters and whisper sweet nothings into their columns. Indeed, so widespread and influential is this blurring of the lines between press and PR that the members of the media – particularly the young journalists who the newspapers hired for pennies on the dollar to replace their experienced predecessors – don’t even realize that there’s something very, very wrong in their newsrooms.
How did this happen?
You see, our politicians understood the press better than the press understood itself. The press, which has a bad habit of romanticizing its standing in the eyes of the American public, assumed that it would weather the slings and arrows of the changing media landscape, if for no other reason than the fact that people want to read what’s going on in the world every morning. In a way, the newspapers were right. People do want news with their coffee, but the mistake the old gray lions of the media made was to assume that the survival of the media meant that real journalism would endure too.
What our politicians grasped immediately, however, is that as long as the people gets their daily dose of sports, comics, and celebrities, they would be unfazed if the rest of the news shifted subtly over time from reportage to propaganda. That’s why, rather than killing their old nemesis, the politicians were happy to let the media chug on under their influence. Just ask Mayor Bloomberg how helpful the press can be. As long as the media doesn’t ask any unpleasant questions, they can repeat press releases word for word as if they were legitimate stories, lionize our leaders, and discredit dissenting voices.
PR people have always viewed the press as free advertising – better than free, really, because the people who subscribe to the press don’t even know they’re being sold a product. Once upon a time, reporters fought back against PR people to protect the integrity of their papers. Nowadays, reporters are grateful to publicists for relieving them of the time-consuming work of actual investigation.
But no one is more happy than our politicians. As long as they can keep spinning worthless yarn into PR gold, their lies and incompetence will never be unraveled.