Evanescent journalism gives way to PR spin doctors

Recent polls show the number of journalism roles in the US is shrinking, in direct contrast to the expanding public relations industry. As newspapers across the country close, professional journalists are being picked up by the PR machine.

­American newspapers like the Seattle Post Intelligencer, The Rocky Mountain News and hundreds more have become relics of the past.

Slashed budgets have stopped the presses nationwide and mass layoffs throughout the media have meant far fewer journalists to investigate policy and procedure.

“We’re losing a sense of accountability in government, in business, in all our lives if we lose journalists who are asking questions about what’s going on,” argues Lewis Wolfson, Professor Emeritus at the American University.

The numbers are particularly dramatic in newspapers where revenues have been cut by almost half. But while the journalism sector is shrinking, the public relations industry is expanding. In 1960, the ratio of PR employees to journalists was one to one. In 1980, it was 1.2 to one; today that ratio is four to one, with PR revenues jumping from 3.5 billion dollars in 1997 to 8.75 billion dollars in 2007.

"Journalists are simply overwhelmed by folks who are trying to spin them, who are trying to create their own story. You have the public relations folks, the spin doctors if you will, driving the news cycle,” John Nichols, author and journalist, The Nation Magazine, reveals.

John Nichols along with Robert McChesney wrote a book on the subject – The Death and Life of American Journalism.

Nichols comes to the conclusion that “in a sense we are becoming one of the most propagandized countries in the world.”

Short-staffed news stations often use company video news releases or VNRs, in which PR is disguised as news.

Breaking-news press releases are often read on air or posted on the web before any fact-checking is done, with the focus often on getting it first rather than getting it right.

Corporate and government PR departments are filled with former journalists who know how to sell their message.

“I understood how media worked, what reporters thought of as a good story as opposed to hype,’ says Butch Ward of the Poynter Institute.

Ward worked for nearly 20 years as a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, but after lay-offs he left to work for health insurer Independence Blue Cross before returning to work as a journalist.

The revolving door between the press and PR, and the press and the government, is causing real concern. What will be the long-term consequences if the influx of spin doctors takes control of the message machine completely?

“Where there is very little journalism being done, and an awful lot of spin, you create some dangerous circumstances for citizenry, for democracy itself,” John Nichols warns.

White House spokesman Jay Carney worked for 20 years as a journalist for Time magazine. Now he is President Obama's spokesperson.

Former broadcaster and columnist Tony Snow went on to serve as spokesperson for President Bush.

Jamie Rubin went from the State Department under President Clinton to executive editor at Bloomberg News.

“It’s so common, has become such a common practice, that no-one is questioning it anymore,” acknowledges Professor Lewis Wolfson.

At a time when hack and flak are often one and the same, and the spin machine works overtime as the printing presses come to a halt, the question becomes – can a meaningful fourth estate actually survive?