Media Beat: AT COMMENCEMENT, JOURNALISM HAS A HAZY FUTURE
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- Today, departing from an institution steeped in modernity,=
you say farewell to a fine journalism school. Honored to address this grad= uating class, I will speak with uncommon candor about the wisdom of your tr= aining and the opportunities that lie ahead.
You have studied how to write news articles and contrive news releases; = how to dig for truth and how to obscure it; how to produce journalistic sen= sations as well as public relations; in short, how to unspin and spin. Like= many others around the country, this school of journalism imparts vital sk= ills of reporting and distorting.
Last year, the national journalism magazine The Quill noted what is now = occurring on hundreds of college campuses: "Future newspaper reporters and = broadcast journalists regularly share classes and crowded curricula with as= piring public relations managers and advertising copywriters." What an idyl= lic, pastoral, almost biblical scene this evokes, with lion and lamb beddin= g down together.
Allow me to extend the metaphor. It is neither cost-effective nor necess= ary to be at each other's throats. We all rely on the creative use of words= and images. Why perpetuate past rifts between journalists and PR professio= nals? Why polarize when we can synthesize? For a fresh generation of media = pros, a new modus vivendi awaits.
Some object to the efficacy of such pragmatism. We hear claims that publ= ic relations and journalism are incompatible. These are different functions= , the naysayers moan. In recent years, they have steadily lost academic gro= und. Yet resistance has not disappeared.
At the University of Maryland, in 1998, the college of journalism went s= o far as to boot out the public relations program. But some big guns in the= PR industry counterattacked and raised hell with top officials at the univ= ersity. According to the publication PR News, the embattled program got lot= s of backing from "corporate communicators at deep-pocketed companies." Sur= viving handsomely, the PR program found a new home at the department of com= munication.
I've heard complaints from people like Dave Berkman, a retired professor= of mass communication at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where h= e was chair of the department for a few years. He argues that when students= take courses in public relations, they're learning to become "professional= liars." He calls PR "the antithesis of what journalism is supposed to be."
Berkman taught mass communication for 21 years, and now he doesn't want = to give up the ghost. He laments that many college journalism departments n= ow feature public relations as the dominant program of study -- and he alle= ges that "to house PR with journalism is to give public relations an imprim= atur of respect and propriety that belies its inherently corrupt and corrup= ting nature." I say, make that guy an offer he can't refuse! Ha ha.
Unfor= tunately, he won't pipe down about the public relations biz. "On the occasi= ons where truth and the client's interests coincide, then you go with the t= ruth," Berkman grouses. "But because you are paid to make the client or the= client's cause look good, truth can never win when it conflicts with the c= lient's interests."
And he goes on: "The purpose of journalism is to ferret out the truth. = The purpose of PR is to protect your client."
But consider the glorious c= areer of David Brinkley. After decades at NBC and ABC News, he moved on to = voice lofty TV spots touting the humanitarian goals of agribusiness giant A= rcher Daniels Midland. You got a problem with that?
As students, perhaps = you feel a twinge of sympathy for Professor Berkman when he asks rhetorical= ly, "How do I teach a kid in Reporting 101 to go after the truth and teach = a kid in PR 101 how to lie?"
It's best to consider Berkman a spoilsport when he contends: "Journalism= and public relations don't belong under the same academic roof. It's like = teaching astronomy and astrology in the same department."
Hey, the wall has fallen. The free market is our secular faith. To those= who resist the convergence, I say, "Get over it!"
In the current media environment, only the intemperate fail to realize w= hen missions can be synergistic rather than antagonistic. Look at it this w= ay: In journalism, the job is to be as truthful as possible. In public rela= tions, the job is to be as misleading as necessary. Surely, we can find ple= nty of common ground. In any case, build your career by proceeding discreet= ly to scope out the limits. See what you can get away with.
Congratulatio= ns to each and every graduate. Go out there and search for truth. But pleas= e, don't carry the lantern too high.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." = His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.