Thursday, March 31, 2005

News Journo Payola Threatens Press Integrity

Americans' personal privacies and freedoms are increasingly under siege, what with redefinitions making the news daily. And with freedom of the press tantamount to the existence of a true democracy, it's disheartening to learn when a professional journalist has been remunerated by the government. It calls into question the integrity of news organizations and their reporters and their obligations to the public.

The March 29 issue of the New York Times (via MediaBistro's Daily Media News Feed) reveals yet another journalist who purportedly burns the candle at both ends. Veteran TV reporter Mike Vasilinda makes a living selling his opinion and reporting acumen to well-known media outlets like NBC affiliates and CNN. At the same time, his work supports the PR initiatives of "Gov. Jeb Bush's office, the secretary of state, the Department of Education and other government entities that are routinely part of Mr. Vasilinda's news reports."

Here's the beef, for those of you scratching your heads.

A news reporter wears an implied hat of objectivity, helping the Average Joe decide whom to believe and why. A news reporter is a sentinel of public trust, in a way that trumpets and holds dear the American way of life. When a news reporter is compensated by government or a political party, he becomes a double agent, with questionable ties, faulty newsgathering practices, and a predilection to provide disinformation and manipulate public opinion.

But before we condemn Vasilinda for capitalizing on capitalism, let's examine the reality of the beast that is freelance writing. Freelancers must always find new ways to market and sell their services daily, having no regular paycheck on which to rely. When publications have no work to outsource, freelancers must pursue other avenues of income or starve. Yeah, starve. That's a real possibility, unless freelancing is just a past time. But I'm getting sidetracked here, which is why this is a blog entry and not a commissioned article.

Wait a minute. The beauty of blogs is that the writer's biases are...or should be...transparent. I will disclose that I am a freelance writer. There. I've said it. I'm standing before you flashing a knee figuratively. I will be totally naked by the time you finish today's entry. Sorry, it's not a pretty sight.

I have been writing professionally since the early 80s. I have been a trade magazine writer, ad industry news beat reporter, newspaper columnist and syndicated public radio talk show host and writer. In fact, I honed my writing skills on the marketing communications side originally, writing brochures and news releases, ghostwriting technical articles and executive presentations, and handling media relations on behalf of technology-based companies and PR agencies. This means I came to reporting with marcom street smarts, rather than J-School book smarts. Now you can judge my comments within that context.

While working PR on the company side, I had to educate a seasoned vice president who wasn't too pleased with coverage we received in a recent tabloid issue. As an advertiser, he expected better treatment. He directed me to call the journalist and threaten to pull our ads if the reporting didn't "improve." I tried to explain the concept of "church and state." He wasn't interested. I told him I wouldn't call the editor, but would be glad to provide his telephone number. That ticked off the VP who said I couldn't have ethics and be in marketing.

While freelancing, there were times I had a chance to create marketing materials on behalf of a corporation. I also knew I might report on a business and later wish to pursue paid projects with them. Hey, who wants to close doors, burn bridges, blah blah blah (insert other trite phrase here)? It occurred to me my trustworthiness as a blossoming journalist could be called into question. I remember asking my newspaper editor for a judgment call and following his advice. When I landed a news beat at a marketing weekly, I was asked to stop doing business with companies that fell into my realm. I agreed and gave these clients a sad but definitive farewell. When in doubt, I endeavored to err on the side of virtue and was occasionally mocked by marketing colleagues for being so hung up.

Have I always been above board in my journalistic dealings? 'fraid not. During my syndicated public radio reign, I interviewed executives of the show's sponsors. I was contractually obligated to the production company plus I wanted to keep my show on the air. I begrudgingly agreed to these guests. Yep, I sold my soul for radio fame. Not too impressive, eh? In my favor, I argued with the producers during editing to maintain some sense of content integrity. But the situation would be far less palatable than I had imagined. Sponsor interviews were often thinly veiled sales pitches by executives who knew better and couldn't care less. They exploited their position and the producers were more than willing to accommodate. I cringed during tapings while attempting to prod these carnival barkers into providing actionable information. Sometimes I wasn't too successful. My only saving grace was that listeners could hear the sponsor's message during commercial breaks and judge for themselves.

[snip - long rambling self-indulgent comments deleted]

But wait! Maybe I am being too hard on myself.

Was I an employee or contractor for any company while writing about it as a news reporter? No. More to the point (and the news of the day)...had I ever been paid by a government agency to handle its PR projects while simultaneously interpreting its news as a reporter? No. Did American citizens rely on me to interpret the news of the day impartially so they could decide how to vote? No. Therein lies the difference.

Do I hold ties to anyone I've cited in my body of work? Now you've got me. My brother is the owner of multiple shoe stores and a former domain owner of shoes.com, a fact widely reported in such publications as the Washington Post. I've mentioned his business ventures a few times and could write and speak somewhat intelligently about them. And there's not much I can hide from anyone willing to Google my name, either. I'm not very good at covering my tracks and lack of decorum, as evidenced by my naivete in posting to Usenet newsgroups once upon a time.

That's why I'm stumped by recent "discoveries" of reporters found moonlighting. If anyone had any misgivings, all it would have taken was a quick check in publicly accessible places, like search engines, newswire archives or periodical indices. As journalists kidney-punch fellow journalists for hiding true intentions, I raise an eyebrow and say "huh?" Why didn't the attackers do their investigative homework sooner and stop masqueraders in their tracks? What did White House press corps journos do when Jeff Gannon (a.k.a. James Guckert) first showed up nearly two years ago? Nothing useful, apparently. So were they waiting for mob mentality to set in or were they just asleep at the wheel?

Meanwhile, some folks act like there is a vast right-wing conspiracy to hide the truth about journalism in America, which is why we're hearing about all these indiscretions now. Maybe there is and maybe there isn't a conspiracy. I can't really say. Ahem. I'd better disclose that I'm a Democrat and leave it at that.

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