RANT: The Case Against Morally Superior Journalists

by Scott Baradell | Public Relations

RANT: The Case Against Morally Superior Journalists


I love journalism, and I respect and admire the work of journalists. I also know, in this era of angry bloggers, that so-called MSM (mainstream media) journalists take more unfair crap than just about any profession — with the possible exception of contingency attorneys.

That said, there is one thing I don’t like, and have never liked, about some journalists. I don’t like the way they treat public relations practitioners.

I’ve been on both sides of the journalist/PR pro relationship, so let’s start with a confession. When I was a reporter, I was often rude to PR people. I treated them alternately as annoying telemarketers (when they pitched me a story) or slavish assistants (when I deigned to write about their companies.)

One incident in particular still elicits pangs of guilt. A PR person representing a large Dallas church invited me to interview one of his denomination’s national leaders. He called me several times, and was nice enough, and so I finally relented and agreed to do the interview.

But then something came up that day and I forgot all about the appointment. At the end of the day, when I checked my voicemail, I had an angry message from the PR guy. He kept calling until he was able to reach me on my phone to tell me how unprofessional I’d been, and how embarrassed he’d been sitting there, with this national religious figure staring at him, waiting for me to show up.

What I feel most guilty about today is my reaction to his call. I was apologetic on the phone with him, but when I got off my first thought was, “Well, I’m never dealing with that guy again. What a jerk!”

Of course, I was being the jerk. But I was so accustomed to PR people who quietly endured my arrogance that I mistook his aggrievement for hubris.

The Power of Karma

I believe in karma now, because the same thing happened to me a year after I started in PR. I had just taken a mid-level corporate job and had arranged several interviews with the CEO at a trade show. The CEO and I sat in a 10-by-10 room with empty white walls and a small white table, waiting for the first reporter to show. He never did. As I fumbled with my cell phone and developed flop-sweat, the CEO stared at me. (I believe the reporter acknowledged a “scheduling conflict” in an e-mail to me a week or so later.)

OK, I deserved that one. But what I didn’t deserve was the “calling out” I got from an erstwhile journalistic colleague a few years ago. I was working in corporate communications, she was still a journalist, and she was writing a story about a controversy involving my company.

The conversation went like this: She asked me a question, and I told her my company’s point of view on the issue. She didn’t agree with this viewpoint; furthermore, she didn’t believe that I agreed with it, and blurted out the following:

“Scott, you’ve sold your soul!”

Notwithstanding the utter lack of comprehension of what PR people do — i.e., we represent our employers or clients, not ourselves — this former colleague’s comment goes to the heart of what bothers me about some journalists. Put simply, they think they are better — that their jobs have a higher moral and ethical purpose than that of the lowly PR practitioner.

I have always found this ironic (and on a handful of occasions like the one above, infuriating) because I left journalism for three reasons. One, I was burnt out. Two, I wanted to earn a decent living. And three, I did not like some of the moral and ethical situations I was put in as a journalist.

Making Compromises

I didn’t intend for this post to turn into Moby Dick, so I’ll close with three examples of these moral and ethical situations:

1. Reporters routinely kiss up to interview subjects in order to get their story. This is particularly questionable when the reporter already knows that he’s going to write something negative about his interview subject. A great example of how this dance works is “Anatomy of a New York Times Article,” a blog post by Mark Cuban. Reading the e-mail trail reminded me of some of my own past sins; it made me a little queasy.

2. One of my last assignments as a journalist was to write a story about the Dallas school system. The publication’s editor had gotten a lead on a “conspiracy” of sorts within DISD, and asked me to talk with his sources and write the story. I talked to his sources; there was no conspiracy, or at least not one that could be in any way proven. But the editor insisted that I wasn’t “digging hard enough.” I relented and gave him the slanted, sensational story that he wanted. I felt sick afterwards.

3. Reporters are often required to knock on the doors of people whose loved ones have just died — often violently and unexpectedly. Although there is usually no legitimate purpose for this other than to sell newspapers or earn ratings points, journalists wrap themselves in pretzels to find the “higher purpose” in this practice. Let me explain why you’re wrapping yourselves in pretzels: there is no higher purpose.

These elements of the reporter’s life never felt right to me; they weren’t right, by my moral and ethical standards.

That said, I would never attempt to take the moral high ground with a journalist, because I know that ultimately we’re all just people, doing the best we can. We make the compromises we can live with.

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