Monday, August 10, 2009

Methinks the editor doth protest too much

More than likely, the Tennessean editor did not use PR coaches to help him write his Sunday editorial, but perhaps he should have.

If Mark Silverman's goal is to defend the honor of his reporters against charges of biased journalism, he does a poor job of it. He waxed too long about bloggers alleging that his reporters are paid to write positive reports. If he believes that citing all of the other McNeely, Pigott, & Fox-billed-and-juiced news outlets helps journalism's reputation, he strikes me as a man who would burn down most of a forest to draw attention to the integrity of his own little stand of trees. Admittedly, he did the public a service in showing that most of Nashville media got on the same gravy train that Gail Kerr enjoyed. However, his inventory of others only reinforces the idea of a biased, self-serving and lazy local media.

Silverman also overplays his hand in his defense of Gail Kerr. Whether or not she was paid money for her friendliness to the idea of a new convention center is irrelevant. She sacrificed her independence and her critical role as a journalist in allowing herself to be coached by PR professionals, whether everyone else was doing it or not. Now she should have to live down the black mark and a growing perception that she does not ask powerful people tough questions.

Blogger Betsy Phillips characterizes as audacious a private PR company inserted between "the 4th estate and the government it is supposed to monitor," but it seems to me that the actions of reporters like Kerr reflect a blurring of those distinctions. Reporters move easily now between government communications posts (i.e., Craig Owensby at Metro Planning) and PR and lobbyist firms (i.e., Joe Hall). Lately one does not have to look hard to see the build up to those transitions in reportage.

It seems to me that journalism has already sold its soul, and its claim on the 4th estate is tenuous because it deals with demons. It is newsworthy that Gail Kerr relies on a PR firm to write a column, however I would characterize it as one profit-making giant (Gannett) dealing with another profit-making giant (MP&F) at the behest of the ruling class at the courthouse. If the days when journalism placed a check on influence and money ever existed, they are extinct now.

Power and corporate greed have reduced the Tennessean to a communications conduit in a network of commercial interests. I was making the same argument back during the fight over placing newsracks in neighborhoods. Local publishers postured as if banning newsracks in neighborhoods were a 1st amendment issue of freedom of the press. That couldn't have been farther from the truth. Newsracks were not constitutional issues; they were commercial ones. Likewise, Gail Kerr's puff column on the convention center was more a commercial pitch than it was an expose in the public interest.

Having Kerr write favorably on their project functions as free advertising with broad reach for MP&F. Plus, Metro pays them rather than the Tennessean for the publicity. Kerr's benefit may not be money beyond the salary Gannett pays her, but she ingratiates herself to the Courthouse elite, which may give her the inside track on dangled information in the future. She also positions herself if she ever wants to make jumps vertically into government or laterally into PR work. Intangible benefits are no less real than monetary ones, and Mark Silverman is not being entirely honest in ignoring them to howl at bloggers.

But this whole protest at bloggers seems ridiculous, unless bloggers have come to matter more than the mainstream media prefers to acknowledge. It was quite startling to learn last week that Metro paid a PR firm $10,000 to monitor blogs and micro-blogs. To have the Tennessean editor flip out philippic and issue a Sunday morning jeremiad against bloggers for what they've done to his poor reporter reinforces the perception that lowly blogs may be forcing mainstreamers to gird themselves for a 4th estate challenge.


  1. Arrgh! Could somebody please explain to me how getting annoying press releases and nagging phone calls from PR flacks is a "gravy train" for journalists?

    Look, anyone who's ever worked for any news outlet anywhere on the planet will tell you this: Reporters hate flacks. Haaaaate. Hate. Hatecakes.

    They'll use them grudgingly if they can't get a quote anywhere else, but flack quotes are always lame and canned.

    Moreover, reporters get dozens of these calls a week, from every imaginable outlet -- churches, charities, candidates and chambers of commerce spew press releases without cease.

    If press releases "bought" press coverage, your average daily newspaper would be the size and thickness of a New York phonebook.

    The MP&F contract a gravy train for the flacks, nobody else.

  2. I agree with you in principle, Anon, but in the case of Gail Kerr, I beg to ask if you read her column. She is frighteningly reliable in her boosterism of a particular civic viewpoint--one that requires spending lots of public dollars on major projects with uncertain outcomes, like big convention centers.

    I can't remember the last time she asked a hard question about anything. Particularly to an elected official or civic leader. She's a civic development booster, not a gadfly. We already have plenty of development advocates, both elected and not, but we need the media to make sure such development is in the city's best interest. Kerr never even asks that question. She just assumes it is. I could do that all by myself. I want her to ask the hard questions and get the details I can't access as a regular citizen.