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I spent a quarter century working as a public relations professional in the military, nonprofit and agency sectors, and during that time, I heard a lot of journalists complain about “PR people and their manipulative agenda”. So, when I see how the national political media has fully embraced a role as de facto PR arms for the politicos of their choice, I find it more than a little ironic. And wholly appalling.
The latest example of the national press’ devolution into PR flacks comes from the Washington Post, which days ago published a laughably obsequious profile of failed gubernatorial candidate and current Democratic vice presidential aspirant Stacey Abrams. Despite the fact that she has never held any public office higher than state representative and is best known for a post-Georgia governor’s race performance that positioned her as America’s foremost sore loser, the paper of Woodward and Bernstein saw fit to print a lavish Abrams lapfest by Kevin Powell.
How outrageously puffy is this profile? Titled “The Power of Stacy Adams”, the author literally compares her to a “supermodel” and RFK; he excuses her sore loser antics by saying “demanding a fair fight” is something that she learned from her mother and father; and the photos that accompany the article (one of which is included here) rival anything found on a Marvel or DC movie poster. He also describes the Georgia governor’s race that Abrams lost as “riddled with allegations of voter suppression” while failing to offer any real proof of the same (just like Abrams herself has always failed to do). Instead, Powell dutifully quotes Abrams unsubstantiated allegations while adding ominous-sounding facts without the necessary context to evaluate them properly.
Now, some might try to argue this all away by saying, “Hey, news media do puff pieces all the time.” Well, in that case, please show me an equally flattering profile of a Republican or conservative political female with comparably modest accomplishments. I would especially like to see comparable pieces about these conservative or Republican women that feature superhero shots like the one that Abrams was accorded. The fact is that on my worst day as a PR flack, I never would have pitched one of my clients for a profile that gushes like the Abrams piece because I would’ve been rightfully laughed out of the office.
Lest we forget, when Sarah Palin was offered up as a national figure just 12 years ago, the press tore her to shreds because she was, in their view, woefully and obviously unqualified for the position that Stacey Abrams is now courting. But objectively speaking, Palin was more qualified than Abrams to be vice president, seeing as she actually had served as a state governor (albeit for a short time).
Of course, the obvious difference between Palin and Abrams in the eyes of the media is their color. No, not the color of their skin – red vs. blue. So, whereas the media trained its guns full-bore on Republican Palin in 2008, Democrat Abrams gets media coverage in 2020 that would make Bono blush. I guess time changes everything; well, time, brazen partisanship and an abandonment of journalistic ethics.
Before anybody tries to dismiss these criticisms as partisanship in and of themselves, please note: I am not a Republican; I am not a Democrat; I am not a conservative or a liberal (my political views are a mix of left and right). This critique is solely about the devolution and degradation of the national political media into de facto public relations functions. The transparent, unapologetic water-carrying for one side of the political spectrum that the Abrams piece exemplifies is now endemic among the national news media, which is arguably the most visible sector of journalism there is. Accordingly, that poisons the public trust in the press, and that loss of trust has real, negative consequences for society, governance and democracy overall. If the segment of the news media that is supposed to keep the populace informed about their political leadership is brazenly “in the tank” for one side or another, that ends badly for everyone.
Members of the press often tout the important role journalism plays in a democratic society. Ironically, the motto of the Washington Post is “Democracy dies in darkness”. Well, it dies in some other things too… like partisan corruption and dishonesty.
Some people seem intent on kidding themselves that that this problem will end when Trump goes away in one to five years. It will not. Trump exacerbated the problems with the news media in this country, but he did not create them. In fact, his election can be fairly described as a symptom of the problem with the press. This dysfunction is the press’ problem, but instead of addressing it, most prominent journalists and news organizations have embraced this dysfunction, telling themselves and others that what they are doing is noble. They are “fighting the good fight”. Sorry, but no. Reporters and media outlets do not get to pick sides as brazenly as the Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, the New York Times, MSNBC et al have and still call themselves journalists or “news” organizations.
When you look past all the rationalizations and excuses, “advocacy journalism” is just another way of saying “PR”.
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