Are we witnessing the fall of journalism and rise of PR? I find myself asking this question, quite often. As a former Public Relations man, I can spot a plug, a media story that is promoting either a product, a person or an organization – off a mile – and unfortunately, this seems to be happening all too often. From the lowliest yellow journalistic papers to the venerable New York Times, this phenomenon is becoming all the more common. And this means that what we are being fed as news is often propaganda, marketing or at worse – lies. And we are willingly consuming this, with very little critical thinking. Journalism seems to be failing in its duties and we are getting more PR in the guise of journalism. While the three functions of media are to inform, educate and entertain, current mainstream media in the West seems to be all about entertainment, with very little, if any information or education happening. Let me explain what I mean.
Many years ago, when I was an employee at the Ogilvy and Mather PR firm in Bangalore, I read the very famous book – Fall of Advertising and Rise of PR – by Al Ries and Laura Ries. I remember their advice clearly and I devoured literally every word of it. I was a young PR professional out to prove myself. Very soon, I learned the tricks of the trade and did rather well for myself. I was one of the top performers in the network – nationally and won recognition fairly soon. One of the first things I realized and internalized was that it was hard for ‘truth’ to be known. With special interests, government agencies and media industry’s own will to survive thwarting genuine dialogue or debate, the changes of the ‘truth’ coming out is hard, if not impossible. This is what makes WikiLeaks sensational. While I believe that most people are smart and are able to see through the mediocre coverage and analysis that we receive, I think the problem facing us is not lack of intelligence, but rather lack of critical information in the public sphere. Media houses and journalists are making us lazy, if not stupid. This has got to do with the overt commercialization and consolidation of media houses, among other things. There are a few reasons why this phenomenon seems to be occurring.
The first reason why journalism is failing is because it is becoming more and more like PR. Journalism’s basic function – to function as the ‘fourth estate’ of democracy is being lost. Whether it is following meekly the administration’s line, as the American media did, while the George W Bush administration sought to beat the drums of war against Iraq or the almost servile attitude that the Indian media has towards the business community and the national government of Mr.Modi, this aspect of media is visible, quite clearly. What this does to our public consciousness is that it dumbs us down. Media in this sense force-feeds us press releases that are supposedly news. While genuine dissent becomes a luxury, even the tiniest differences between opposing views becomes part of a big ‘debate’. Non-issues become issues and comedy shows – like the Daily Show- become the only way to actually get to the truth. Remember the foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?
Secondly, advertising revenues dictate how media houses operate. While the Times of India, the most widely read English daily started selling ‘advertorials’ in India, there was a huge hue and cry. This meant that the editorial page – the holy grail of the broadsheet – was up for the highest bidder. The sanctity of the holy space is no longer kept pure. As this report adds, the selling of editorial space created not only a conflict between the media marketing departments and Medianet type agencies, it also further created a divide between ‘genuine news’ and ‘fake’ news. As Ranjona Banerji adds : “ To add to this corporatization of news, there then came the new element of “paid news” which was noticed to be widespread in the 2008 general elections. Here, editorial space was sold – apparently without the knowledge of journalists – to candidates and political parties. This practice was and is prevalent across the media – which includes TV. It has emerged since that in some cases journalists were also involved – not always voluntarily – to approach politicians to put money into buying editorial space to further their election prospects.” There is good reason to believe that this occurred during the recently concluded elections in India and will occur in the upcoming elections too. While this phenomenon may not occur as blatantly in the U.S., the purchasing power of big names and corporations with deep pockets will definitely influence the way certain issues get covered. To deny this is to be naïve.
Finally, Media consolidation is a problem that is facing us all. While corporate ideals dictate increasing bottom lines at every quarter, this means that journalists are fired often, they are under paid and increasingly forced to toe the line of the establishment. Democracy Now shows how Comcast and Time Warner merger could form the largest media conglomerate in the U.S., making it almost a monopoly. Good news for the corporate houses, but not the consumers, who may not have much of a ‘choice’ in terms of either content or pricing. Michael Copps argues in this story that this consolidation, like others would continue the private sector consolidation of the media sector that would make costs higher. “What this means is the cabelization of internet, and to be controlled by a few gatekeepers, who can block websites, we are doing irreparable damage to the free speech ideal.” Copps further points out that our increasing marketization decreases the media democracy. The Federal Communications Commission should step back and break these consolidations, he suggests. This also implies that if a company is in charge of both production and distribution, it gives them power way beyond what others had, in the past, allowing them to block content that they do not agree with, thus limiting the democratic discourse.
Media buying and political influence seem to go hand in hand. With the Citizens United judgment that removed all caps on corporate spending on politics, the Pandora’s Box has been opened. And this has direct implications on how media houses are run – especially in the context of political campaigns. It would not be a surprise to see this, and we are perhaps already witnessing an onslaught on our senses by both political parties in the U.S., by way of political ads and campaigns, that aim to malign the other, rather than actually seek to inform or educate the public of genuine choices.
When media becomes all about PR, the question is not whether one is receiving quality news or bad news. It becomes a question of whether what one is receiving is news, at all. That is the danger facing us all. An informed citizenry is crucial for any democracy and unless the media is free, this is not possible.