08/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Bad PR Happens to Good People, or, Jeffrey Birnbaum's Revenge

Washington Post columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum has his panties in a twist again about the practice of public policy advocates employing professional writers to help them draft newspaper op-eds. As a writer who specializes in just that niche I have an objection to his objection, and you should too.

Just ask yourself -- do you really want to read op-eds whose every word is written by lawyers, scientists and Henry Kissinger? Is Senator McConnell as good a writer as Salman Rushdie? When you see a politician's or celebrity's byline on a newspaper page, do you believe they wrote it all by themselves?

Of course not. But the Washington Post apparently believes something different.

A few months ago, Jeffrey Birnbaum "outed" a PR campaign which included a "white paper" circulating on Capitol Hill making the case for Congressional earmarks, and also an op ed "written" by three big-city mayors. He must have imagined a scene out of the Dick Van Dyke show, where the mayors stood around a computer, chomping on cigars and arguing over participles, but then was disappointed to find the hidden hand of a PR firm.

"Soon after my column on the paper ran last week," Birnbaum wrote last May, "the company's president, W. Roger Gwinn, phoned to admit that his firm's seven-person budget and appropriations policy team wrote it -- initially to explain to clients why they tended to get more money from congressional earmarks than from federal agencies left to their own devices. It was later distributed to lobbyists and congressional staffers.

That's when it became famous as a bold defense for the much-maligned earmarking process. The document's facts were used in an op-ed piece praising earmarks that appeared under the names of mayors of three cities represented by the Ferguson Group. The firm had a hand in placing that op-ed in the Washington Post, though it initially denied any involvement."

Now, Birnbaum is at it again. In a recent column headlined, "The Man Behind the Byline Isn't Behind the Article. So, Who Is?" Jeffrey Birnbaum revisits the shocking practice of ghostwriting. Reading between the lines, you can see how the machinery of government, journalism and public relations really works.

Charles Steele Jr. is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a very prominent fellow. Two of his distinguished predecessors were Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Right off the bat, Birnbaum is setting the stage for a swipe at this subject's integrity. The implication is the Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy would never compromise their integrity -- so who is this Steele guy anyway?

This week, the SCLC is celebrating its 50th anniversary at a convention in New Orleans.

More scene-setting -- Birnbaum wants readers to imagine themselves at the 50th anniversary
celebrations, imbued with a sense of history and noble purpose. Get ready for the axe to fall!

Steele is upset about something that happened before the celebration. A handful of Southern newspapers published an op-ed article under Steele's name on July 18 that his lawyer and the SCLC say he did not write or authorize.

The commentary criticized pending federal legislation that would reduce credit card fees and suggested that retailers stand to profit from it. The measure has been the subject of a long-standing feud between retailers, which want to limit the fees, and credit card companies, which don't.

OK, here's some actual news. The author of an article denounces it after publication. Kind of like when Tom DeLay denied writing a passage in his own book about a fellow Republican attack dog, leading some to wonder not only if DeLay had actually written the book, but if he'd even read it.

The episode opens a small window onto an open secret of lobbying. Public relations firms regularly solicit authors of opinion-page articles, draft the pieces for them and place the articles in publications where they will have the most impact -- all for a fee.

Those last three words stick in my craw -- "for a fee." As if the minute filthy lucre is involved, integrity, truth and inherent value go out the window. By extension, I suppose, newspapers should stop paying the nominal fees they offer op-ed writers (which are not much more than what Calvin Trillin, describing his payments from editor Victor Navasky, as being in "the high two figures") and PR firms should work for free.

But it's another clause in that graf that describes the real issue here, although Birnbaum himself doesn't seem to realize it. Problems arise not when writers get involved, but when agencies "place the articles in publications." There's a difference between a writer working with an author on a newspaper-worthy article, and a PR agency submitting that piece on its own letterhead.

I advise my clients to submit op-eds themselves, from their personal e-mail accounts. This practice may deprive PR firms from bragging rights to "deliverables" when justifying their fees, but I think it preserves the integrity of the relationship between author and reader.

I have it on good authority that the Washington Post now requires op-ed writers to sign a document swearing they worked on their piece all by themselves, with no outside assistance. This "Birnbaum clause" is insupportable from a newspaper that regularly prints op-eds from Senators, government officials, former Presidents and movie stars. If newspapers start enforcing such a rule, I'd be out of business, but you'd be out of luck, stuck with an op-ed page that reads like the Congressional Record.

Repeal the Birnbaum clause!