When I went to work at my first newspaper job, at a chain of suburban weeklies where my Dad ran the ad department, my editor handed me a stack of press releases and told me to see if there was anything worthwhile in it. Enthusiastically, I edited out a half dozen stories that seemed wonderful to me. My editor threw them all away, and chided me to set my standards of newsworthiness a little higher.
Today, newspapers, TV stations and networks, and radio news producers still get inundated with press releases. I described the phenomenon in my column, “Aspects of the Armstrong Williams Flap,” back in January. It’s just part of the business, really an essential part. Reporters and editors can’t be aware of everything. Something newsworthy eventually comes over the transom, and responsible journalists watch out for it. From the other side, energetic public relations agents work hard to get their clients mentioned in the media. Without PR, we in the public would know much, much less.
An ironic term enters in: “Earned media.” Supposedly, that means independently arrived at press attention, i.e., attention that somebody deserves. We have all noticed how much easier it is for people and causes of a certain stripe to get “earned media” than it is for another kind of person or cause. The Center for Science in the Public Interest issues a press release on global warming? Front page! The President announces the most significant shift in American foreign policy in decades in a speech at West Point? Hmm…Seem to have forgotten most of that one.
SO WHEN THE PRESS gets itself up in a dudgeon over the U.S. Army paying Iraqi journalists for favorable coverage of peaceful progress, I can’t take it too seriously, and I don’t think most of the public takes it too seriously, either. The number of journalists who can stay starchily on one side only of the PR line throughout their careers is very small. In the United States, outside interests do not directly “pay” journalists for good coverage. But that’s only because journalists already get paid, many of them quite well.
In Iraq, indeed, in much of the world, a journalist earns practically nothing, and he’ll take what he can get from anybody. On the BBC last week, one such “journalist” was busily blowing the whistle on the Army to the Beeb (no doubt fully aware of the future favors that might be granted from the British colossus), but let slip at the end of his interview two things: Iraqi journalists were flocking to the Green Zone for story assignments at $30-$50 a pop; and the stories were all true, i.e., they involved things that actually happened.
The President himself noted the other day how many newspapers and magazines had sprung into existence in post-Saddam Iraq. Scores of them now compete with one another in a market as new to them as the real estate market was to the people of the former Iron Curtain countries when the Soviet Union collapsed. Most tyro reporters in Iraq probably assume from the get-go that their job involves advocacy of some kind. Most Iraqi readers assume that their papers profess a point of view.
The way it used to be, the press reflected Saddam’s view or nothing at all. And that’s the way it still is in most non-Western countries. In Iraq, the U.S. Army is just playing the game the way it’s played in a post-totalitarian open market, and I hope they keep doing it.
I EVENTUALLY GOT MY TRIUMPH as a teenager presiding over the PR pile. An invitation showed up one day to take a ride in the Goodyear blimp. All the grownups turned up their noses at it. I took it and brought my camera.
Those same grownups envied me a full double-truck photo spread in the next paper: Aerial pictures taken at a delicious 30 miles per hour and 1200 feet of altitude of the towns we covered, something everybody wanted to see. And I got one of my first bylines, courtesy of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
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