The Gulf oil spill was 2010’s biggest story, so when David Barstow walked into a Houston hotel for last December’s hearings on the disaster, he wasn’t surprised to see that the conference room was packed. But Barstow realized as he glanced across the crowd that most of the people busily scribbling notes were not there to ask questions. They were there to answer them.
“You would go into these hearings and there would be more PR people representing these big players than there were reporters, sometimes by a factor of two or three,” Barstow says. “There were platoons of PR people.”
A New York Times reporter, Barstow has written several stories about the shoving match between the media and public relations in what eventually becomes the national dialogue. As the crowd at the hearing showed, the game is changing.
“The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up—as if they were on steroids,” he says.
In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols report that the number of U.S. journalists has fallen drastically while public relations people have multiplied at an even faster rate. In 1980, there were about 45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with 36 journalists. In 2008, there were 90 PR people per 100,000 compared to 25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three to one, better equipped, better financed.
How much better?
The researcher who worked with McChesney and Nichols, R. Jamil Jonna, found that revenues at public relations agencies went from $3.5 billion to $8.75 billion between 1997 and 2007. Over the same period, paid employees at the agencies went from 38,735 to 50,499, a 30 percent growth in jobs. And those figures include only independent public relations agencies—they don’t include PR people who work for big companies, lobbying outfits, advertising agencies, nonprofits, or government.
Traditional journalism has been headed in the opposite direction. The Newspaper Association of America reported that newspaper advertising revenue dropped from a high of $49 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2009. A lot of that loss is due to the recession, but even the most upbeat news executive has to admit that many of those dollars are not coming back soon. Six major newspaper companies have sought bankruptcy protection in recent years.
Less money means fewer reporters and editors. The American Society of News Editors found that the number of newspaper reporters and editors hit a high of 56,900 in 1990. By 2011, the numbers had dropped to 41,600. Much of that loss has occurred since 2007. Network news did not fare any better: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that employment there is less than half of what it was in the peak period of the 1980s.
“I don’t know anyone who can look at that calculus and see a very good outcome,” says McChesney, who is a communications professor at the University of Illinois.
The dangers are clear. As PR becomes ascendant, private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, 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 says. “We are entering a zone that has never been seen before in this country.”
Gary McCormick, former chairman of the Public Relations Society of America, says 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,” says McCormick, whose organization has a membership of 21,000. 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 says.
He 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.”
A Pew Center report, “How News Happens,” looked at the Baltimore market and found that while new online outlets had increased the demand for news, the number of original stories spread out among those outlets had declined. Moreover, even original reporting often bore the fingerprints of government and private public relations.
Some experts have argued that in the digital age, new forms of reporting will fill the void left by traditional newsrooms. But few would argue that such a point has arrived, or is close to arriving.
“There is the overwhelming sense that the void that is created by the collapse of traditional journalism is not being filled by new media, but by public relations,” says John Nichols. Reporters usually make some calls and check facts, he says. But the ability of government or private public relations to generate stories grows as reporters have less time to seek out stories on their own. That gives outside groups more power to set the agenda.
Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, does not believe that reporters working for reputable organizations are going to let PR people dictate their stories, no matter how busy they get. He does, however, see a change in the relationship between PR and the public itself. The Internet makes it easy for public relations people to reach out directly to the audience and bypass the press, via websites and blogs, social media and videos on YouTube, and targeted e-mail.
“Let’s take a hypothetical situation in which there had been no reduction in the media; at the same time, there still would be growth in the ability of public relations people to directly reach the public,” Downie says. “They are filling a space that has been created digitally.”
Some examples: In the academic world, the website Futurity regularly offers polished stories from research universities across the country like “Gems Clear Drug Resistance Hurdle” (Northwestern University) and “Algae Spew Mucus to Alter Sea Ice” (University of Washington). On the business front, Toyota used satellite press conferences and video feeds on its website to respond to allegations about sudden acceleration in its cars last year, and published on its website transcripts of a long interview with reporters at the Los Angeles Times. And in the realm of political advocacy, Media Matters for America led a battle across the Internet with the anti-abortion group Live Action over a videotaped sting that Live Action did on Planned Parenthood.
In a vacuum, none of this is bad. Schools need to publicize their research, corporations defend their products, and political groups stake their positions. But without the filter provided by journalists, it is hard to divide facts from slant.
It’s also getting tougher to know when a story line originates with a self-interested party producing its own story. In 2005 and 2006, the New York Times and the advocacy group PR Watch did separate reports detailing how television news was airing video news releases prepared by corporate or government PR offices. PR Watch listed 77 stations that aired the reports, some of them broadcast nearly verbatim.
In 2008, the Times returned to the issue of hidden public relations agendas with a series of stories in which Barstow showed how the Pentagon was using retired military officers to deliver the military’s message on the war in Iraq and its counterterrorism efforts. Barstow described how the officers were presented on the news programs as independent consultants offering unvarnished opinions.
After being stonewalled by the Pentagon for two years, the Times eventually sued to obtain records about the Defense Department’s use of retired military officers. Barstow found evidence that the officers’ appearances on television were not happenstance, but a carefully coordinated effort of what the Pentagon called “message force multipliers.”
Barstow was struck by the sophistication of the operation. “In a world saturated with spin, viewers tend to tune out official spokespeople and journalists,” he says. “Where they are influenced is when they see people who are perceived to be experts in the subject matter but independent of the government and the media.”
Excerpted from an article copublished by Columbia Journalism Review (May-June 2011), the media monitor published bimonthly by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. www.cjr.org and www.propublica.org