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AT COMMENCEMENT, JOURNALISM HAS A HAZY FUTURE


Solomon

Today, departing from an institution steeped in modernity, you say farewell to a

fine journalism school. Honored to address this graduating class, I will speak

with uncommon candor about the wisdom of your training and the opportunities

that lie ahead.

You

have studied how to write news articles and contrive news releases; how to dig

for truth and how to obscure it; how to produce journalistic sensations as well

as public relations; in short, how to unspin and spin. Like many others around

the country, this school of journalism imparts vital skills of reporting and

distorting.

Last

year, the national journalism magazine The Quill noted what is now occurring on

hundreds of college campuses: "Future newspaper reporters and broadcast

journalists regularly share classes and crowded curricula with aspiring public

relations managers and advertising copywriters." What an idyllic, pastoral,

almost biblical scene this evokes, with lion and lamb bedding down together.

Allow

me to extend the metaphor. It is neither cost-effective nor necessary to be at

each other’s throats. We all rely on the creative use of words and images. Why

perpetuate past rifts between journalists and PR professionals? Why polarize

when we can synthesize? For a fresh generation of media pros, a new modus

vivendi awaits.

Some

object to the efficacy of such pragmatism. We hear claims that public relations

and journalism are incompatible. These are different functions, the naysayers

moan. In recent years, they have steadily lost academic ground. Yet resistance

has not disappeared.

At

the University of Maryland, in 1998, the college of journalism went so far as to

boot out the public relations program. But some big guns in the PR industry

counterattacked and raised hell with top officials at the university. According

to the publication PR News, the embattled program got lots of backing from

"corporate communicators at deep-pocketed companies." Surviving handsomely, the

PR program found a new home at the department of communication.

I’ve

heard complaints from people like Dave Berkman, a retired professor of mass

communication at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he was chair of

the department for a few years. He argues that when students take courses in

public relations, they’re learning to become "professional liars." He calls PR

"the antithesis of what journalism is supposed to be."

Berkman taught mass communication for 21 years, and now he doesn’t want to give

up the ghost. He laments that many college journalism departments now feature

public relations as the dominant program of study — and he alleges that "to

house PR with journalism is to give public relations an imprimatur of respect

and propriety that belies its inherently corrupt and corrupting nature." I say,

make that guy an offer he can’t refuse! Ha ha.

Unfortunately, he won’t pipe down about the public relations biz. "On the

occasions where truth and the client’s interests coincide, then you go with the

truth," Berkman grouses. "But because you are paid to make the client or the

client’s cause look good, truth can never win when it conflicts with the

client’s interests." And he goes on: "The purpose of journalism is to ferret out

the truth. The purpose of PR is to protect your client."

But

consider the glorious career of David Brinkley. After decades at NBC and ABC

News, he moved on to voice lofty TV spots touting the humanitarian goals of

agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. You got a problem with that?

As

students, perhaps you feel a twinge of sympathy for Professor Berkman when he

asks rhetorically, "How do I teach a kid in Reporting 101 to go after the truth

and teach a kid in PR 101 how to lie?"

It’s

best to consider Berkman a spoilsport when he contends: "Journalism and public

relations don’t belong under the same academic roof. It’s like teaching

astronomy and astrology in the same department."

Hey,

the wall has fallen. The free market is our secular faith. To those who resist

the convergence, I say, "Get over it!"

In

the current media environment, only the intemperate fail to realize when

missions can be synergistic rather than antagonistic. Look at it this way: In

journalism, the job is to be as truthful as possible. In public relations, the

job is to be as misleading as necessary. Surely, we can find plenty of common

ground. In any case, build your career by proceeding discreetly to scope out the

limits. See what you can get away with.

Congratulations to each and every graduate. Go out there and search for truth.

But please, don’t carry the lantern too high.

 

Norman Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His

syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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