he took off his sunglasses, you knew it was screen star Paul Newman. Those blue
eyes always give him away. One day last week, I found myself staring into them
from behind a video camera, as Newman recorded a message beginning with a
recollection of "Torn Curtain," a movie he made in the 1960s for
reminisced briefly about a speech he gave playing a scientist defending the
United States from nuclear war.
mentioned that the movie had doubled its investment.
no, this wasn’t a segment for "Entertainment Tonight," a TV program I
admit I once produced some segments for. And no, this was not a commercial for
an investment firm hyping entertainment stocks.
was in front of this camera not as an actor but as an advocate, using his
persona, and in the process voluntarily being used, to make a point about an
issue he’s been passionate about for decades.
years later, in 1983, Ronald Reagan – another actor – gave the same speech in
advocating Star Wars. Only that production lost $70 billion, and there was no
return on investment," he opined.
statement was part of a campaign to challenge the so-called Son of Star Wars, a
laser-equipped, multibillion dollar missile defense system shored up by claims
that it will be able to shoot down missiles from space after they launch. He
characterized it as a Pentagon boondoggle: "malarkey — hitting a bullet
with a bullet." (CLICK HERE TO SEE THE VIDEO.)
has perhaps been better known in the last decade for his "Newman’s
Own" [LINK] popcorn and other products (his company doubles as a
philanthropy) than his movie roles. Yet here he was, lending his reputation and
celebrity to a cause that certainly deserves more visibility – the call to
reduce and retire nuclear weapons. His appearance was arranged by a progressive
public relations firm, Fenton Communications, (LINK) run by my old friend David
Fenton as part of an effort to get media visibility for critics of the
administration’s newly revived missile defense system.
are three times as many PR people today in the United States as there are
reporters. Monitoring groups like MediaChannel-affiliate PR Watch [LINK]
regularly expose the powerful behind-the-scenes role of PR people in getting
their clients and issues into the media. They triumph at "scientific
studies" paid for by drug companies to give credibility to their own
products. Thanks to PR wizardry and media sloppiness, those studies are often
reported without their funders being identified or their agendas explained.
the public relations world, with its mission of "engineering consent"
always in the fore, is dominated by giant firms firmly wedded to corporate
agendas, a growing number of progressive PR companies are at work, too,
challenging the system and championing oft-marginalized issues. Some are more
activist than others. Some command high fees. Many have learned how to be
effective. Some, like Cause Communications, publish manuals (LINK) on how you
can do it yourself.
Newman on tape, David’s colleague Josh Baran, as savvy a PR honcho as there is
in the business, can open another front in his war against nuclear war on behalf
of an organization called GRACE (LINK). Lawyer Alice Slater is GRACE’s organizer
in chief, steering the campaign to persuade the United Nations and the U.S.
government to abolish weapons of mass destruction in the same way that slavery
was abolished more than a century ago.
many advocates, Alice knows that when her issue is not on TV, it doesn’t exist
for the American people. She also knows that she can’t get it on TV by herself.
She was smart enough to recognize she needed professional help from a skilled
strategist like Josh. And she went out to raise the money to rent his services.
(Note: Right-wing groups learned the importance of good PR years ago.)
is an anomaly in an industry that is primed to serve corporate interests far
more than the public interest. Having cut his teeth on handling projects for big
Hollywood studios and then, briefly, for Bill Gates, he decided to marry money
with meaning by working with a firm that served issues he could believe in. He
went from selling the makers of Windows to opening some new windows for
"celebrities" he believes in, such as the Dali Lama. (LINK to TIBET
SITE) Josh played a key role in ensuring a 50,000-person turnout in New York’s
Central Park for the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit last year.
years ago, he worked with Paul Newman on the Nuclear Freeze Campaign. He
grimaced when I reminded him that during that semi-successful effort — the
nuclear arms race fizzled for a while because of a large public outcry, though
it has yet to be fully frozen — Paul Newman debated his Hollywood nemesis
Charlton Heston about the freeze on a TV show moderated by Phil Donahue. It was
also aired on a program I produced for. "They decided to do that when I was
out of the room," Baran says now, disclaiming responsibility for the
segment after the fact. Newman, for his part, admitted to me: "I didn’t do
very well." Heston, a master demagogue, had been better briefed by the
Reaganites then engaged in escalating the Cold War. His well-scripted comments
pushed Newman’s folksy and more personal approach onto the defensive. The
debacle underscored how the wrong media visibility can backfire.
pretaping – and with no Heston baiting him – Newman has far more control over
what he wants to say and recorded his current message in just two takes. He
fine-tuned the script and did his thing with aplomb. I was there because Baran
had hired our TV company, Globalvision (LINK) (How’s that for sneaking some of
our own PR into this column?), to produce the taping and edit a short news video
to try to give the nuclear issue more visibility. By supervising the shoot, I
got a chance to schmooze with the star. Ironically, at this point in his career,
Newman could have handled the whole exercise without so much help.
& Co. have been able to generate some attention for the nuclear weapons
cutbacks, more than the issue’s had in years. But like many PR people "flacking"
critical issues, he is frustrated about how closed and close-minded many
segments of the media are. It’s an uphill battle to get attention for critical
ideas in a print or TV environment where reporters often function as
stenographers for those in power or as extensions of show biz.
why projects with deeper pockets no longer rely on just PR. Our friends at
TomPaine.com, (LINK) another MediaChannel affiliate, also advised by Fenton, buy
ads in the New York Times to call attention to issues being spotlighted in their
online Web journal. They, like many others, mix "paid media" with
so-called free media (which is rarely free).
what it has come down to: If you want to be taken seriously, you have to buy
visibility, one way or another.
on a personal note, as a journalist I am usually uncomfortable doing PR on the
side. But in a climate where independent news magazines like GlobalVision’s
human rights TV series (www.globalvision.org) can’t even get on public
television, smaller media companies have to produce projects for clients just to
survive. Of course, one has to draw a clear public distinction between sponsored
programming and journalistic endeavors. That line is often blurred and always
needs to be disclosed.
ago, my late mentor, Nation editor Andrew Kopkind, once said of his stint with
Time magazine, "I used to work for Time, or was it sell?" He meant
that mainstream journalists often see themselves – and, in fact, are – selling a
product as much as reporting a story. If that’s true, then meaningful
distinctions between journalism and public relations are more nebulous than we
Schechter produced 10 documentaries with GlobalVision, where he serves as vice
president and executive producer. He is the executive editor of MediaChannel
and the author of News Dissector, a collection of his columns and writings,
available online from Electronpress.com [www.electronpress.com/dschechter.asp].