Journo’s PBS Op-Ed Laments ‘the Growing Power of Publicists’

Disclaimer: If you’ve already read too many “journalists vs. PR” stories this week, then you might want to skip this one. Our bad.

PBS Mediashift contributor/John Jay College associate professor of English Devin Harner offered a reassessment of last month’s biggest PR story this week, and his comments on the Putin/Ketchum debate are worth reading in a “taking your vitamins” way. He sees our era as one in which the publicist has a growing power to shape the media narrative, and he’s not too happy about it. Here are some more of his more sobering takeaways:

“When I was in college, PR was a dirty word. So much so that one of my mentors, Dr. Jackson, would make fun of PR majors on the first day of class, before encouraging those of them who were competent to come over from the dark side, see the light, and work for the good guys.”

That’s not a fair take, but it shows us (as if we needed any more evidence) that this push-and-pull is nothing new and that it starts early.

He also writes that “thanks to social media and ‘Mad Men’ blurring the lines”, his students have a hard time “differentiat[ing] between a press release, a news story and an academic paper”, and he’s concerned that:

“A piece about a charter school, or a health and wellness story about the benefits or risks of fish oil, for instance, might be at risk for infiltration.”

In this case he obviously means “infiltration” in terms of a story painting a certain company or individual in a positive light—and he’s right to say that PR, like journalism, sometimes gets “sloppy”. But the idea that every piece of “specific workaday reporting” can spring to life without a pitch isn’t realistic, and neither is the idea that the individual who pitches a story somehow determines its final slant.

This is one writer’s take on an issue that we’ve already discussed to death, and Harner has an inherent distrust of the practice. But we still think the piece is a worthy addition to the discussion because it embodies a common and, in many cases, deeply held opinion.