I was privileged to work as a reporter during a time of relative press freedom. It was an innocent time. You might even say we were naive. And we certainly mishandled the news from time to time. But those blunders were mostly due to honest incompetence – errors of enthusiasm, one editor called them.
Of course, there were papers like the “Pink Telly,” that bizarre final edition of the Toronto Telegram with its pink front page and two-inch tall headlines. The Telly’s headline writers weren’t above proclaiming a “shooting war on the Great Lakes” when I reported that some crew members thought they’d heard a gunshot during a dispute between rival shipping unions.
Yes, hyperbole abounded and the news was not always reported – or presented – objectively. But the era of professional press management was yet to come.
Now, it’s here – in all its tainted glory.
Today, everybody who is anybody has a public relations crew in tow. And PR has come a long way, baby. It’s no longer just turning out press releases and taking writers to lunch in hopes they would do a weekend puff piece on your client.
It is now a sinister science, buttressed by psychological and statistical research and informed by decades of trial-and-error.
A “personality” can be created in a few weeks, with the right amount of money. And a character can be assassinated a lot more quickly, given the discouraging tendency of human nature to root amongst the garbage of life.
These troubling thoughts are prompted by a piece in Rolling Stone magazine by Matt Taibbi. He was responding to comments by Lara Logan, chief foreign correspondent for CBS News, who had condemned his magazine’s article on General Stanley McChrystal.
You can read the article here:
Logan told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program that Rolling Stone should have suppressed the story to avoid embarrassing the American “flag.”
I was as distressed as Taibbi to learn that a prominent network journalist obviously sees her colleagues as agents of the government, not as members of an independent “Fourth Estate.” But that was not what set me off.
It was Taibbi’s mention of the Pentagon’s PR budget that pushed my buttons. Here’s the passage:
True, the Pentagon does have perhaps the single largest public relations apparatus on earth – spending $4.7 billion on P.R. in 2009 alone and employing 27,000 people, a staff nearly as large as the 30,000-person State Department – but is that really enough to ensure positive coverage in a society armed with a constitutionally-guaranteed free press?
And true, most of the major TV outlets are completely in the bag for the Pentagon, with two of them (NBC/GE and Logan’s own CBS, until recently owned by Westinghouse, one of the world’s largest nuclear weapons manufacturers) having operated for years as leaders in both the broadcast media and weapons-making businesses.
How can the government justify spending nearly 5 billion dollars of our tax money to manipulate the public’s view of the military?
How can anyone defend the practice of using the public’s money to pull the wool over the public’s eyes?
Why is nobody protesting this abuse of public funds? Just because it has become the norm in America doesn’t make it right.
Especially at a time when Congress claims it can’t find the funds to extend unemployment benefits, I find it obscene that our elected representatives shell out hundreds of billions of dollars for a bloated military, including a huge budget for polishing the image of misguided wars.