by Erik Deckers
American Reporter Humor Writer
April 7, 2005
EXTRA! EXTRA! JOURNALISTS SOMETIMES LIE!
SYRACUSE, Ind. - I always used to roll my eyes at people who said "you can't believe everything you read." With the exception of all supermarket tabloids and magazines, I had always believed that newspapers were - for the most part - fairly trustworthy in the news they reported. Whether I agreed with them or not, I thought the writers always tried their best to be as honest as possible.
Boy, was I wrong.
According to the New York Times (official motto: "Hey, we learned our lesson after the Jayson Blair thing!"), Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, Wade Horn, was found to have hired three nationally syndicated columnists to secretly shill for Bush administration policies.
These conservative columnists - Michael McManus, Maggie Gallagher, and Armstrong Williams - were hired to write about a variety of topics, including a marriage initiative and No Child Left Behind. This is normally not a problem, as journalists will sometimes hire themselves out as PR flaks for some extra income.
The problem is these three promoted their pet issues in their columns without saying they were being paid to write about them. A clear violation of journalistic ethics which, believe it or not, actually exist.
In fact, there were so many PR agencies being hired to write and produce fictitious news segments that the General Accountability Office forbade federal agencies from creating their own news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of materials." The GAO said this violates government restrictions on covert propaganda - something we haven't even been allowed to use during the Iraq war.
In other words, we can torture people, we just can't lie to them.
Of course, it's not too surprising to learn that the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget ordered all executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO. Translation: even if it's illegal, we still want you to do it.
But this is normally not something journalists do, at least not without some disclaimer that says "I am a shameless, unethical hack who was paid huge sums of money to sell my soul to sleazy partisan interests."
I say this partly out of a sense of moral outrage at the violation of journalistic ethics and the public trust, but mostly because no one has ever made this kind of offer to me. That, and I can't get it all to fit on a t-shirt.
That's not to say I haven't freelanced as a PR flak myself. I can think of two notable instances where small business owners - a personal life coach and a pizza restaurant owner - paid me to use my writing and advertising skills to promote their businesses. I wrote an outstanding sales letter for the life coach and eye-catching door hangers for the pizza guy.
They each went out of business six months later.
In my defense, it wasn't my fault. I did the job I was hired to do, I did it well, and I even went above and beyond the call of duty. But I still couldn't shake the feeling that there was a connection between my work and their ... non-work.
Believe me, nothing is a bigger blow to a writer's ego than out-and-out failure of the company he is writing for. Receiving a rejection letter from a magazine is nothing compared to the thought that somehow you have single-handedly managed to destroy a man's life work and dreams.
As a result, I try to avoid writing on behalf of causes I support. I'm now afraid that any attempts to write for them would cause gross violations of human rights, plunge the world into a wave of fascism and communism, and bring about the return of Walker, Texas Ranger to television.
So instead, I'm offering my services for hire to my favorite causes or companies, but I'll write for the opposition instead - sort of a secret agent/saboteur copywriter. This will guarantee the failure of that particular organization, thus paving the way for the success for my own chosen cause.
It works something like this: For the price of a new BMW Z4 3.0i Roadster, I'd be happy to say wonderfully glowing things about Mercedes. For a year's supply of Papa Johns pizza, I'll write outstanding reviews about Pizza Hut. And for a 5-year subscription to DIRECTV and the NFL Sunday Ticket, I'll tell everyone I can about how great the Dish Network is. Each of my target companies will soon go out of business, leaving my secret employer to reap the rewards (and give me 2% off the back end as well).
Hey, who are you going to believe, me, or some unethical hack like Armstrong Williams or Mike McManus?
Uhh, don't answer that.