All the PR That’s Fit to Print

If you thought you were getting your news from a journalist, think again

| September-October 2011

  • all-the-pr-thats-fit-to-print

    REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst

  • all-the-pr-thats-fit-to-print

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?

9/12/2011 12:31:36 PM

When I was about 12 I had a pen pal in Germany. She and I were stunned to discover that world news events were described totally differently in her papers than in ours. That was 60 years ago, so this is nothing new. It's also not okay. When I got my degree in journalism we were encouraged to be objective, and cautioned to remember that it's impossible to ever be completely objective. I agree with Steve and the author that it's hard for us to have a real idea what's going on. Our only defense is to remember that everything we get has at least one hidden agenda, and our safely comes from following my dad's advice: Don't believe everything you hear, and only half of what you see.

steve eatenson
9/12/2011 9:46:14 AM

Interesting article albeit disturbing. Totalitarian governments engage in only allowing the public to get the information they want the public to have and in the form they want the public to receive. It seems that we are moving towards a totalitarian system in which government and big business are the rulers of the land. Government of the people, by the people, for the people is only true if "the people" means the very rich and powerful people. Some of the mightiest flag wavers in America seem to be the biggest perpetrators of this sad state of affairs. It seems that the most anti-social and narcissistic personality disordered people in this country either end up in prison or the end up at the top of the government or corporate ladder. This is a stunningly disturbing situation for those who champion what American Democracy and true spirituality were supposed to stand for.

9/9/2011 8:50:52 AM

Utne - Could you please set this up so the full article can be viewed all on the same page? With a bad internet connection, it's a big pain to load 4 separate pages just to read the full article - half of the time I only read whatever's on the first page of a story for this reason. Thanks!

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