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Does public relations perform a public service?

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 16

Although this chapter asks if public relations practitioners provide a service to the public, James Lukaszewski’s essay does not address the topic but instead gives tips about how to do PR better.  Stuart Ewen’s essay says that PR has swung between responding to public demands and trying to control the public and is now a tool used by those with wealth to keep it.

Lukaszewski’s essay, originally a speech to end a two-week seminar on PR, could just as easily apply to a seminar of secretaries or dentists.  It’s just a list of platitudes to make one more effective at what one is doing.  His seven are: be constructive, be positive, be prompt, be outcome-focused, be reflective, and be pragmatic.  He says this will help one become transformational but I’m not sure that necessarily applies to transforming public opinion through mass media but rather transforming your own business or job performance.

Ewen begins with a short history of PR, beginning around 1900 when large companies had to face an informed public and build up confidence in free market business.  It later changed to a matter of convincing or tricking the masses into doing what corporations wanted, though after World War II it went back and forth between these two goals.  Because of the social movements of the 1960s, PR moved away from toeing the party line and began advocating companies encourage different perspectives and groups, targeting African Americans, for example.  This has shifted now from advocating participatory democracy to studying and targeting special demographics.  Ewen says this can be divisive and that PR has helped corporations dismantle welfare capitalism.  Lately PR has become much more pervasive and demographics have identified and cordoned off minorities.  Ewen’s closing section points out that PR is most often used by those with all the wealth to perpetuate themselves.

These essays were a pretty weak look at the issue.  The first one was nothing but an inspirational speaker who could have been talking to any profession and the second only got to a real point near the end.  Also, this seems like a silly question.  Does PR provide a service?  Of course-to the company who hired the PR people.  Does it provide a service to the public or boost democracy?  Probably not, but it was never meant to.  Ewen touches on part of the problem right at the end of his essay-PR serves those with mass media access and money to hire them with, i.e. the elites and large corporations.  The only place a public service could enter into this is if the PR is for a non-profit or other group working for the public interest.

Commercialism and professionalism – democratic media or declining standards?

A response to Mass Media and Society (James Curran and Michael Gurevitch), Chapter 10

Daniel Hallin argues in “Commercialism and Professionalism in the American News Media” that the decline of journalistic professionalism due to commercialism is not necessarily bad or good but instead a complex change.  He agrees with one side of the debate that it may lead to a more democratic media, but says that the old school worry about declining standards and less public-affairs information is probably true as well.

Hallin traces the development of professionalism in the media by citing a 1940s-era Commission on the Freedom of the Press report that reflected concerns similar to those we have today.  The commission found that the political leanings of media owners and concentration of ownership required that journalists consider their work as a public service, not just a job.  On the other hand, more recent developments have pushed for more market-driven journalism.  Forces such as competition for viewership with television and public (stock market) ownership of media companies have made many newspaper executives advocate market-driven reporting.  In television, increased competition, deregulation, the rise of local news and reality-based programming and large media-corporate mergers have pushed away from professionalism as well.  Hallin says that despite all this, pro-market editors and owners have not won the argument-professionalism is still alive on the individual journalist level.  More to the point, he believes that neither side is right.  For example, though market-driven shows like Hard Copy, Larry King Live and Jerry Springer may give voice to individuals with controversial minority beliefs that would never be touched by hard news reporters, these shows are more interested in exploitation and fear-mongering than discussion of issues.  Hallin says that old-style professional reporting leads to regrettable practices like accepting the government’s official version of events and covering news more important to the elites.  On the other hand, the market-driven ideology might lead to information-rich media for elites and information-poor media for the masses-which is hardly democratic.

I agree with Hallin, although I think many of the faults he finds with the professional media may have been faults of the culture of the 1950s and 60s instead.  The tendencies to focus on Washington, accept the official line, and cover foreign affairs in terms of national security were more due to World War II and the Cold War than professionalism in general-it was in the name of professionalism, not marketing, that Watergate was exposed.  Also, many of the things that may be attributed to marketing, like the drive for diversity reporting, are as much part of a shift in professional ideals as anything else-Hallin even gives the example of professionals wanting to cover the inner city even though suburbanites are more interested in champagne prices.  He’s right that the last 20-30 years have been a mixed bag for the mass media and information consumers.  There are more shows bending the line between entertainment and journalism than ever before, but on the other hand the market has created hundreds of television channels where there were just three, including 24-hour news coverage.

Media independence, corporate control, and democracy

A response to Mass Media and Society (James Curran and Michael Gurevitch), Chapter 6

In “Rethinking Media and Democracy” James Curran discards the accepted view of the media’s role in democracy and shows that corporate control may be worse for the people than government control.  Historically, the media is seen as a check on government that must be independent-meaning it must reside in the free market.  Curran says this arrangement has failed the people in several ways.

Curran gives three standard arguments for media independent of government: first, to act as a watchdog; second, as a way to facilitate idea exchange and debate; and third, so that they may act as the voice of the people more.  He says all three arguments are flawed by real-world conditions and corporate ownership.  First off, the media rarely even schedule watchdog-type news anymore-most mass media effort today is entertainment.  And the government is no longer the only large, faceless entity that the people need a watchdog for.  Giant corporations, the same ones that own the bulk of the mass media, today have more power than some governments, yet the classical argument doesn’t mention them.  Furthermore, there are many examples of the mass media working with or for the government even if they are independently owned, simply because it is in their best economic interest.  Curran does allow that loss of credibility and professional ethics counter these arguments to some degree, but not enough to overpower his concern.

Curran rejects the marketplace of ideas theory largely because the free market has led to multi-billion dollar media mergers, large percentages of market share for a small number of companies, and a high cost to enter the marketplace in any meaningful manner.  Second, the mass market demands more entertaining, less informative content; third, the market lead to information-rich media for elite and info-poor media for the mass market; and fourth, it leads to simplified news rather than process-type news.

The mass media also do not really act as a voice of the people.  Curran thinks the free market is fundamentally flawed in this regard-public participation in the media is passive, in terms of buying what they like, rather than an active voice in most cases.  Even new communication technologies, he says, which may seem to give people more of a voice, have been reigned in by deregulation-inspired mergers.

I agree with many of the problems with the standard idea of the purpose of the media in a democratic society he has brought up.  I think it’s especially important that the people have a watchdog for large corporations now when so many of them are beyond any real government or market control.  Except for a few cases (like Disney losing business if people find out they use sweatshop labor) corporations are free to do anything they wish that may effect individuals adversely with little accountability.  The government, on the other hand, has to seek approval from the public every few years through election.  It is relatively easy to find out what’s going on in the government when compared to the private sector, yet corporations control what you eat, breathe, and read every day.

He is also right that the mass media, as a whole, is moving towards more entertainment and less information, especially on public policy.  That’s because people buy it.  Why do you think political candidates with obviously no command of the issues can beat out those who are well-informed?  People don’t like to hear about fiscal policy, but they do like hearing about “uniters, not dividers” and “family values.”  Curran mentions the growth of purely-informational media and specialized media as a wedge between the elites and the general public but I think he’s missing the point.  In the U.S., at least, nothing is stopping 99 percent of the general public from accessing the elite, actually informative media except preference.  Almost everyone can afford a New York Times once and a while and everyone can afford The Other Paper and Columbus Alive (which are more investigative than the Dispatch) or go to a public library and surf the web for free.  No matter what structure the media takes, the bottom line is you can’t force people to pay attention to important things they aren’t interested in.  If 99 channels are public interest, civic organizations, truth-seeking investigation, etc. and one channel has Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Entertainment Tonight, will people be any better informed than they are today?  That is the main flaw in Curran’s whole essay-even taking the market out of the picture and all the ways in which it limits public information and debate, he still gives people the right to choose what they view and read and therefore leaves it up to them, essentially no better than the free market.  All of the flaws of the free market he cited would be erased immediately if the public demanded it.  But they don’t.

The development of the Internet is a good illustration.  On the surface it seems to prove Curran’s point-when it began, many people saw it as this perfect marketplace of ideas, yet now much of it is controlled by a few companies (who are buying up competitors as they are created).  Curran’s criticisms seem to hold.  However, the market is not to blame here-the cost of publishing on the net is insignificant and no site has to aim at the whole market and therefor dumb-down it’s content.  But, as more of the general public has gone online, the explosive growth has been channeled toward Microsoft Network, AOL, Yahoo, and a few others, because most people are more comfortable being spoonfed more of the same kinds of things they’ve already been exposed to.  It does not take much time or know-how to find much better, deeper, faster, etc. info on the net, but the majority of users now would rather just click on the first thing they see, which is determined by a merger between AOL and Bugs Bunny, even if John Doe’s independent cartoon studio is twice as funny and only five clicks away.