The Book Club

Spin Hypersensitivity

Dear Jack,

You’re gonna hate me for this, but: I agree with you. Mostly. I owe you. You talked me down.

Press corruption was rampant in decades past. I well remember when I started as a financial news reporter the tales old-timers would tell of graft, political favors, etc. For the most part, that Hecht-MacArthur/Charles Foster Kane/Sob Sisters situation is dead and buried and good riddance. Indeed, we react so instinctively against deals like the Time -Pfizer arrangement because they are as extraordinary as they are smarmy. They are also routinely exposed.

In fact, going back to history–and for this, I prefer Ron Steel’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century to Stuart Ewen’s PR! A Social History of Spin–it’s a tonic to recall that Lippmann and the Progressives helped professionalize the American press. The notion that public opinion could be crystallized into positive social action–and that the press can play a role in that process–helped bring into the business a new class of men and women devoted to the truth and its consequences. One might even argue that the controversial “civic journalism” movement has its roots in Lippmann. Yeah, I know this is beginning to sound like one of those penultimate soul-stirring speeches from a Frank Capra movie, but it’s nonetheless true (or so I assert!) that most folks who make this their living know the difference between spin and fact, and are committed to the latter, in the belief that it will accomplish some good. (And if you gangster-slap me, I’ll just have to kill you.)

I’m not so sanguine about owners, mind you. Ewen makes a point–forgive me, but this may not derive directly from his book but from one of my conversations with him–that the moment you perceive your job as attracting an audience instead of covering the news, your role and activities change. The increasingly furious competition for audience among different media forms has certainly driven media proprietors into more subtle forms of corruption: tabloidization, market deification, etc. But you’re right: The public can smell it, and discount accordingly. (This, in the end, may be the best explanation for Clinton’s otherwise miraculous survival in the face of ABC, MSNBC, and the Federalist Society.)

Meanwhile, I’m eager as hell to get your take on PR and the network effect, Java pollution, contract writing, and Microsoft’s image. But I’d like to point out, for the record, that antitrust history shows no inherent conflict between using monopoly power to keep prices artificially low and using that power to keep them high.

It’s been swell. Stay in touch.