PR Spree at the ‘Journal’

The most wonderful and the most awful thing about the Wall Street Journal is its relentless habit of viewing all human experience as a succession of business transactions. It is wonderful because it makes the Journal almost entirely free of sentimentality, which is arguably the biggest vice of mass-market journalism. It is awful because it often makes the Journal spectacularly insensitive when it reports on human tragedies. (A “sensitive” Journal news story about a tornado is one that tallies likely insurance claims in the second paragraph rather than in the first.)

An example of the Journal’s awfulness is today’s sidebar to its coverage of the Littleton high school massacre, “What if the NRA Were Your Client?” The paper queried five “crisis-management experts” to offer up public-relations advice for the gun lobby. Chatterbox won’t deny that the sheer cynicism of viewing the killing spree as consulting opportunity did give him a furtive thrill. “Get ahead of the problem [with] a pre-emptory [sic] strike or announcement,” recommends Robert Marston, of Robert Marston & Associates, perhaps by booking Charlton Heston on Larry King Live or putting big ads in the newspapers. Marston says the NRA should point out that “autos can kill people, too, if they’re in the hands of reckless individuals.” Wiser advice, to Chatterbox’s thinking, comes from Alan Brew of Addison, a San Francisco “corporate-identity firm,” whatever that is. “They have to stay well out of this situation. At a time like this, they should simply say, ‘We’re as shocked as anybody else would be, and it’s inappropriate to respond.’ “

But if the Journal is going to view Littleton in this tasteless way, why not do so in a manner that at least promotes the common good? Chatterbox, who is a gun-control advocate, thinks it would have been no more offensive, and a good deal more beneficial, if the Journal had asked its crack team of public-relations experts, “What if Sarah Brady Were Your Client?” Logically, it should be just as legitimate to invite PR professionals to speculate on ways that the gun-control lobby can exploit the Littleton killings in order to maximize damage to its mortal enemy, the NRA, as it is to ask them how the NRA can protect its image. Those who disagree should ask themselves whether pro-NRA sympathies are clouding their judgment.

(For more on the exploitation of high-school shooting sprees, see William Saletan’s deconstruction of pundit chatter about last year’s Springfield, Ore., killings.)

–Timothy Noah