Media corruption averted, this time

Patrick Chisholm Writer/Editor, PolicyDynamics.Org
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When you read an opinion article, how can you be sure that the author of the article isn’t being paid by an undisclosed party with a vested interest in the topic? Same with other news reports that you read or watch: how can you be sure that a public relations firm didn’t pay the media outlet to run it?

You can’t be sure. But if you’re fairly trustful of our media, you’ll assume that the author came up with the opinions on his or her own. If, on the other hand, you get wind of authors being paid to write by undisclosed parties, your trust in our media will break down. Cynicism will rise. That’s bad for our free press and for society.

A recent incident reinforced that cynicism.

Earlier this month, cyber security blogger Christopher Soghoian exposed PR firm’s Burson-Marsteller attempt to gin up negative press about Google without disclosing that Facebook is funding the effort. In an email, Burson asked Soghoian to author an op-ed that would have been critical of Google. Burson then would have tried to have it published in major publications.

The email didn’t say whether Soghoian would ghostwrite the article, or byline it. But the implication is that Burson wanted Soghoian to byline it. The author of the email, John Mercurio, wrote, “I’m happy to help place the op-ed and assist in the drafting, if needed.” Given that Mercurio could have written it himself, it appears the only reason he would approach Soghoian would be to ask him to byline it.

That’s a gross breach of ethics. Burson should have had someone at Facebook byline it — or someone at Burson with full disclosure that Facebook is its client. Instead, by approaching Soghoian, it sought to cover up its real agenda and mislead readers into thinking that an independent, influential blogger was arguing the case.

The email exchange implied that Soghoian would be paid for such services.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Mercurio doesn’t come from a PR background but from a journalism background. He’s a “veteran political journalist” who’s been “covering the Washington political scene for nearly two decades.” Journalists should know better. Apparently, many of them these days don’t.

All journalists and public relations professionals need to periodically read and re-read the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics and the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics.

Mercurio and his PR firm also should have learned from the 2005 revelations unearthed by USA Today through a Freedom of Information Act request. USA Today found that conservative columnist Armstrong Williams promoted the No Child Left Behind Act without disclosing that he was being paid to do so by PR firm Ketchum, Inc., and ultimately by Ketchum’s client, the Department of Education. As Edelman Public Relations’ CEO Richard Edelman wrote, “This kind of pay for play public relations takes us back in time to the days of the press agent who would drop off the new record album and $10 to the deejay. It makes our industry’s efforts to ‘clean up’ behavior in newly created PR markets such as China and Russia look decidedly ridiculous.”

Tribune Media Services ended its syndication contract with Williams, stating, “…. readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party.”

If Mercurio willingly approached Soghoian with no qualms about what he was doing, then that would be disturbing. If Mercurio was pressured by his company to do so, had major ethical scruples, and did it anyway, that would be disturbing, too.

What someone — particularly a former journalist — working in a PR firm should do in such a situation is refuse to do it, or resign in protest.

The incident raises questions as to whether other writers, bloggers, and other media outlets are paid by Burson and other entities to push certain issues. That would be media corruption plain and simple.

To be sure, given that many people are either too busy to write or can’t write, it’s perfectly ethical for PR firms to pay professional writers to ghostwrite op-eds and have them bylined under the name and/or organization of the party pushing for and paying for the agenda. But it’s woefully unethical for PR firms or other undisclosed parties to pay independent writers to byline op-eds.

Back when I did freelance writing for a living, I can think of only two times when I was asked to byline an op-ed pushing the client’s agenda. I promptly declined. (Neither were PR firms. And I’m not going to identify them because they asked me offhandedly and didn’t seem to initially realize the ethical implications. I don’t have the “evidence” in any event.)

In the Facebook vs. Google matter, there’s nothing wrong with Burson supplying press releases, ghost-written articles bylined by Facebook or Burson, and other literature to media outlets, so long as Burson doesn’t offer to pay the outlets.

What would be wrong is if the outlets ran with such incendiary material without critically examining it and unearthing contrary viewpoints. If that were the case, then the media outlets would lack ethics. (If it were innocuous, uncontroversial material published by limited-budget media outlets just looking for “filler,” then that would be fine.) If Burson paid them money, then both Burson and the outlets would lack ethics, big time.

Lack of full disclosure is fraud.

For a publication, receiving an op-ed submission from a PR firm bylined by someone other than the PR firm should raise a red flag. The publication editor should promptly look into whether the PR firm is paying the byliner, as opposed to the other way around.

(This matter also raises questions as to whether, when pitching articles to publications, PR firms pitch them directly, or pay other seemingly independent writers to pitch for them. Editors of publications often don’t like to hear from PR firms — they prefer to hear from writers themselves, and I’m sure PR firms are all too aware of this.)

The government and/or other entities should launch an investigation of PR firms to determine the extent to which they pay media outlets and independent writers to push issues without full disclosure. Congress should hold hearings on the subject, calling on employees of PR firms to testify under oath.

Media outlets should investigate whenever pay-to-play is suspected. In addition to PR firms, potential culprits include advocacy groups, think tanks, businesses, labor unions, individuals, and, as with the Armstrong Williams case, government agencies.

Kudos to Christopher Soghoian for exposing the recent scam. Let’s hope that there are other honest and principled writers out there who refuse such advances from PR firms, or better yet, expose them.

Patrick D. Chisholm, a former Christian Science Monitor columnist, is founder and creative director of Accentance.