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News/PR Line Gets Blurrier

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Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers. -- Daniel Boorstin

For a minute, in 1982, after the magazine I'd been editing went under, I did what out-of-work writers and editors frequently do: I became a public relations 'consultant,' in this case for CBS Records. The money wasn't bad, and I got to stroke my chin and appear to be thinking seriously before advising the powers that were on such portentous matters as what to do when word got out that Ozzie Osbourne bit the head off a dove at a meeting with company execs. (Answer: Get out of the way.)

I wasn't very good at convincing my former colleagues in the press that CBS could do no wrong, and, when the big boss was fired shortly after I arrived, my PR career came to a merciful end as well.

Even a good PR person wouldn't have helped much when Variety last week fired its veteran chief film and theater critics (respectively, Todd McCarthy and David Rooney), although someone should have advised editor Tim Gray against claiming that the "changes won't be noticed by readers." At least Gray avoided the cliche that Variety -- whose decline is painfully chronicled in Monday's New York Times -- would now be leaner and meaner.

That the long-time 'show-biz bible' eliminated its principal voices on film and theater has an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to it. It also underscores the real-world fact that arts critics -- and staff writers in general -- are becoming an endangered species, with an ever-enlarging army of freelancers now vying for fewer jobs at lower pay from a shrinking universe of outlets.

Many of the thirty-thousand-plus newspaper journalists laid off in the past two years have signed on to corporate public relations gigs, further blurring the already-murky line between PR and news. When the handful of corporate chieftains who control most mainstream media hire as PR agents the journalists who used to expose them, they're one giant step closer to commandeering the information narrative in America.

In their book The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols observe that "A major development in the past decade has been video news releases, PR-produced news stories that are often run as if they were legitimate journalism on local TV news broadcasts. The stories invariably promote the products of the corporation which funds the work surreptitiously."

And the recent Supreme Court decision declaring corporations 'people' with the right to spend fortunes flacking for political candidates nudges us closer still to a news/PR no-man's-land.

Starved of reality, Americans are more vulnerable to people who think they can fool reality by telling a good story. A new poll by Republican-leaning Rasmussen claims that 60% of Americans think public school textbooks are more concerned with political correctness than with accuracy. The coverage I saw of this didn't question whether the 60% were right or had any evidence to back up their suspicion. No matter. The accusation -- perhaps promoted by a PR flack at Rasmussen -- has become more important than the reality.

The fake news of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is more trusted in many circles than the 'real thing.' But would-be practitioners of the art should note that satire needs perfect calibration to be effective. Over the weekend, when a TV station in Georgia (the one near Russia) reported a 'mock' Russian invasion, the irony was lost on viewers who, according to the New York Times, reported heart attacks, rushed to buy bread and staggered from their homes trying to get to a safe place.

If there's a silver lining in the dovetailing of news and PR, it may be that at least journalists-turned-PR-people tend to be more reality-based than, say, former W flack Ari Fleischer. I wonder how Fleischer, now spinning for sports-stars-in-crisis like Mark McGwire and Tiger Woods, would have advised CBS Records execs re the bird beheading brouhaha. Maybe he'd have instructed them to repeat, over and over until everyone believed it, that the dove was, like all doves, soft on terrorism and therefore deserving of its fate.