Journalists are supposed to report the facts, and avoid inserting their opinion or subjective point of view into a story. Journalists, as well as the public they serve, believe journalists engage in reporting the facts and are tribally different from those who spin the facts and engage in public relations activities rather than in factual reporting, such as a spokesperson for a presidential candidate who is trying to create a certain impression in the minds of voters. But what happens when PR becomes part and parcel of journalism?
News organizations want reporters out on the street to gather up nuggets of information, which are turned into news stories. There are, however, fewer news collecting and disseminating organizations today (and even fewer reporters), and advertising revenue is moving away from the so-called legacy media and toward trendier social media outlets. Investigative pieces are becoming extinct as more and more reporters are tied to their desks doing more and more clerical work. So what do reporters turn to in order to be—or seem to be—productive? Answer: The ubiquitous news release, which is full of spin, shedding positive light on the PR pro’s client.
British journalist Nick Davies, in his 2008 book, Flat Earth News, had researchers from Cardiff University do a study on the sources used in five of Britain’s best newspapers. The results showed that 60% of the stories that were studied came in whole or in part from PR agencies or from wire copy; 41% of wire copy had its genesis in a PR agency; and also (of the 60%) PR pros had a hand in 54% of the stories. The book said that reporters on their own initiative generated just 12% of the stories. This recent phenomenon is called “the PR-ization of the media.”
Think of it this way: A PR pro tries to persuade an editor or producer to give his/her client’s side of a story, or to report on a product in a favorable way (unless, of course, the product is manufactured by a competitor). The editor or producer—the so-called “gatekeeper”—has to decide whether to invest time and money in assigning a reporter to cover the more-or-less manufactured story. The journalist assigned to the story, often full of zeal about reporting the truth, is overworked. Although he or she cares about the job and wants to do the “right thing,” the chances are that he/she is torn between deadlines and expectations of how many stories to produce. So he or she relies on PR, and the PR pro wants to spin a story a certain way. In such a case, true modern era journalism ethics regarding objectivity are compromised.
The troubling fact that spin is increasingly taking over political discourse is evidenced by the PBS teen program, In The Mix, which devoted one of its episodes to this spin: “Political Literacy: Sifting Through the Spin.” In this program, teens interviewed Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show), talk-show host Larry King, and expert-at-spin Mary Matalan. All admitted that spin—which is “nothing more than presenting your position and your candidate in the most favorable light”—has become part and parcel of politics. Stewart tells the viewers, “Politicians, at this point in American history, are no different than advertisers.” One savvy teen reporter observes that the “problem with politics is that it’s fake and you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. You know, it’s called spin.”1
Ivy League philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who wrote the bestseller On Bullshit2 views spin as a subset or subcategory of B.S. Frankfurt made an appearance on Jon Stewart’s program The Daily Show—what Stewart refers to as a “fake news” show that is “passionately opposed to bullshit.”3 Frankfurt digs deep into the essence of b.s. by contrasting it with lying. Liars care about what is true, which means they have a respect for the truth, if not always for telling it. By contrast, the b.s.-er shows a lack of concern for the distinction between truth and falsity. B.S.-ers appear to be interested in simply conveying information. In reality, however, they are “fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions and attitudes of those to whom they speak.”4
With b.s., the aim is to serve some purpose other than simply reporting or stating what’s true or false. For example: self-promotion, or promotion of some other person, program, or product. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing b.s. requires no such conviction.”5 For this reason, Frankfurt believes that b.s.—which, according to him, is on the rise—is more corrosive to society than outright lies because b.s.-ers simply don’t care about the truth.
When questions by Stewart about the nature of political spin and how it differs from b.s., Frankfurt claimed that spinner and b.s.-er share an indifferent attitude toward the truth. Instead of caring about the truth like liars, spinners care more about producing certain impressions in the minds of the publc. In the world of spin, image means more than message, a lesson presumably learned from McLuhan.
The increase in amount of spin can be attributed to the growth of marketing in American culture, according to Frankfurt. As responsible citizens, we are increasingly expected to know something about important matters. But the sheer amount of information in a 24/7 news world makes it impossible to have informed views on all matters. News organizations want us to believe that they take their journalistic duties seriously. But, as we said earlier, there are fewer news organizations today as newspapers fold, news channels get retuned as shopping channels, and reporters leave the profession for more lucrative fields such as public relations, advertising, and so on. Hence, though we typically see spin in the areas of advertising and sales, we are seeing it increasingly in journalism. Historically, it has been the job of journalists to sort through the spin to get to the real substance of stories. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen when media outlets print press releases verbatim, and broadcast stations run video news releases without verifying the information from all sources or at least telling the viewers who supplied the VNR. At one point during his interview, Stewart suggested to Frankfurt that spin may be easier to detect than b.s. since spinners are up front about what they do. But the sheer volume of, and acquiescence to, or reliance upon, spin, which is helped along by the increasingly lucrative professions of advertising and PR, might make spin harder to detect than b.s., hence harder to eradicate—or even identify.
What happens to a culture that promotes spinners to the rank of “doctor” and b.s.-ers to artists? We end up being more easily confused about distinctions between true and false, right and wrong, reality and appearance. Crossfire chastised Stewart for not asking presidential candidate John Kerry tough questions during Kerry’s “Indecision 2004” appearance on The Daily Show. Stewart retorted: “That’s not my job. I work for Comedy Central.” If not his, whose job was it? Journalists. Unfortunately, journalists have become the tools of able spin doctors and that could mean that people who don’t care about the news, or don’t read it/listen to it/watch it/click on it on the ubiquitous cell phone app, don’t get it. It might also mean that digital “natives” get their news 140 characters at a time, or recognize that since it’s infused with b.s. why not surrender and get news with a touch of sarcasm from popular programs such as The Daily Show? But this also seems problematic since Stewart claims that providing politically relevant information isn’t his job. Instead, he says his job is to comment on the news media—to watch the watchdogs. Frankfurt and Stewart agree that the news media need to take responsibility and renew their commitment to reporting the truth.
Today’s spin doctors are the figurative descendants of the Sophists, teachers of rhetoric who deftly manipulated opinion. Back in Ancient Greece, before journalism as we know it existed, ordinary citizens relied on philosophers to keep the Sophists in check. Why? Because philosophers respected truth. Seeking neither fame nor fortune, Socrates helped found a discipline that would be devoted to seeking truth and calling out b.s. and spin. Today, in a culture and age that shows little respect for philosophers and intellectuals in general, we turn to the media to be our gadflies. Yet the same youth “corrupted” by Socrates more than 2,000 years ago today see few alternatives and so they turn to The Daily Show and look to comedian Jon Stewart and others of his ilk to be the gadfly. And that is b.s.!
1. In The Mix, PBS [Video]. Retrieved June 14, 2012, from http://www.pbs.org/inthemix/politics_index.html
2. Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
3. John Colapinto, “The Most Trusted Name in News,” Rolling Stone (October 28, 2004), quoted in Rachel Joy Larris, “The Daily Show Effect: Humor, News, Knowledge and Viewers,” M.A. Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown University (May 2, 2005).
4. Harry G. Frankfurt, On Truth (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 4.
5. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, pp. 55-56.
Editor's Note: The authors of the above article spelled out in full the word we have replaced by the letters "B.S." and the manuscript was accepted in that form. However, co-publisher Tom Cooper and Executive publisher Cliff Christians were concerned that the use of the second part of the full word signified by "B.S." would be undignified and might offend some of our sponsors and others. Accordingly, we have adopted "b.s./B.S." or "b.s.-er" for the entire article (except the name of Frankfurt's book and other direct quotes) and expect that this will not confuse our readers. We thank the authors for their cooperation.