It’s a familiar chain of events. I’m at a party, a wedding, or some other event where newly-acquainted guests start asking each other “what do you do?”. When I say I’m in public relations, a lot of the people stare blankly…What is that, exactly? I tell them that, at a very basic level, we help our clients tell their stories and get their points across in the news media. And, it’s not like advertising, where you pay to play. In this game, it’s about calling, emailing
and meeting with reporters, editors and producers and persuading them that a client’s story is worth taking up space in the newspaper or broadcast. It’s called “earned media” for a good reason – it’s usually no easy task to convince a short-staffed newsroom that this particular person, program, or activity is worth the attention.
With that vocational explanation out of the way, there’s usually at least one person who smirks, chortles, and expresses sympathy for having to talk to reporters. All they want to do is dig up dirt, play “gotcha,” and outdo each other with sensational headlines….right?
This is when I pull out my soapbox and say: “wrong.” There’s a lot of attention on the US Constitution these days. But the poor First Amendment is taking a beating. More to the point, the largely honorable people in the news media who make a living deploying and defending it have become bad guys in the eyes of too many – the symptom of a perverse understanding of the news media that’s toxic to our democracy.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It’s telling that the founders chose to make those 45 words the very first amendment to their new Constitution – ratifying it in 1791. In fact, a free press was an essential part of the nation’s genesis, as Thomas Paine and other pamphleteers used the written word to spread the political messages that fueled the American Revolution. Fast forward more than 200 years and a free press is still what keeps us free. Jumping on the “fake news” bandwagon and deriding the media is short-sighted and dangerous.
Back when I oversaw communications for a group of six state agencies, I was once called upon to explain my role to a couple hundred employees at an interagency symposium. After my brief overview of media relations, hands went up and comments began about how terrible it must be to answer calls from reporters. What a pain they are….how could I stand working with them every day?
Simple, I said. Without reporters asking pesky questions of government agencies and demanding accountability of politicians, our democracy does not work. There are a number of countries where the press is not free and journalists risk jail or worse if they question the government, I said. Would any of you want to live there? The room went thoughtful and silent. No hands went up.
Ten years later, in the midst of an all-out assault on the right of journalists to simply do their job, I’m hoping at least a few of those people remember that discussion and support rigorous journalism for what it is: the Fourth Estate, an essential pillar of a democratic society.