Thursday, January 20, 2005

Never Mind the Payola

When a Friend deals with a Friend, Let the bargain be clear and well penn'd, that they may continue Friends to the End.--Poor Richard

(This post responds to Jay Rosen's Bloggers are Missing in Action as Ketchum Tests the Conscience of PR at PressThink)

The Scandal of Armstrong Williams is not the money, it's that PR as Fake News is the Right-Wing’s Definition of Democracy.

Part of what we are running into in this story is that PR firms are at least as critical a filter of what passes for public discourse in the US as the news media or the blogosphere. Marketing and PR are forms of opinion and news management, of political and public engineering, varieties of sophism for the information age.

The propaganda, public relations, and marketing industries came out of one ugly and painful birthing process, in part recorded in Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion: the US government’s mobilization of journalists and early private sector marketing techniques on a mass scale for the purpose of selling World War I to the American people. The boundary between the three areas has always been more formal than real, consistently artificial and tenuous.

The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of modern cable TV news. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of modern talk radio. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of Bush administration environmental policy. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of the Iraq war.

Many claims of "media bias" boil down to the charge that news agencies regularly contradict official talking points, that they effectively edit press releases: The Good News in Iraq

Cutting out the middleman--the press--is often presented by the administration as communicating "directly" to the people, but in reality it is a demand for capitulation to marketing and PR campaigns as the reality of the world we live in. Demanding that the media stop filtering the "news" is typically a demand that the media stop editing corporate or political press releases. The right wing blogosphere’s demand that the press stop "creating" news by editing and contextualizing press releases is demanding that the news stop distinguishing itself from PR. It is not only to demand tyranny of the modern day sophists of the public relations industry, but to demand that this tyranny be UNCHALLENGED.

This is the context in which the Armstrong Williams-Ketchum-Dept of Education payola scandal emerges. When the right-wing blogosphere is demanding that the news be PR and only PR, how can they complain that punditry has been reduced to PR? That’s the agenda from the start.

The problem from the right-wing point of view is the practical one that Jay points to here: The contract was presumably bound to be exposed. Where is the PR percentage in setting someone up for exposure that undermines any positive spin? Or is this something more closely approaching standard practice than we yet know?

My point is that the right-wing objection can only be one of style and practical consequences, not one of principle. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is their objective, not their scandal. The payola angle actually distracts us from the larger picture in which organized forces are demanding that PR reign unchallenged, in politics and "news" alike.