Amid the Madness, Clarity on Journalism and Government

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Some mornings in our modern media age spread a kind of disagreeable smorgasbord of items across my awareness that bring to mind an exhausted, frustrated look my grandfather used to sometimes get when we discussed the world as it had become.  The look said, “For all of the improvements in the world over my lifetime, why are we still here on this particular issue.”

Of course, the different life experiences of generations can draw this reaction from different directions, and I find myself mirroring his expression in a way that says, instead, “For all of our insights, why are we going there on this particular issue.”

To some extent, the foregoing is a tease, because I need to process this morning’s reading some more before offering thoughts.  What saved me from that rut, though, was an item that brought to mind the famous line from Return of the Jedi when the evil Emperor stands, preparing to kill our hero, and says, “Only now at the end do you understand.”

Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg has been on a bit of a tear today on Twitter.  It started with her discovery of a job posting for a Department of Administration Director of Public Affairs making up to $110,000 per year:

What’s this all about? Until @GovRaimondo’s reelection campaign, Department of Administration HAD an $84,523.92 a year PR person. Is this a Second person, or a move to give the returning Brenna McCabe a new title with a big raise?

She subsequently noted that the job is posted the week before Christmas, referenced the state’s budget deficit, and got a bit deeper, in a philosophical sense:

Broader question: at what point are there ramifications for the operation of a free press when 1. the media is outnumbered by the # of govt-paid PR people 2. The govt “spin doctors” & “handlers” are paid $30k-$50k-$70k more than the most in press corps (except TV personalities)?

She then asked if we’ve reached “a tipping point,” threw open the floor with a question about whether “any member of the Rhode Island press corps – TV, radio or print – [is] making $110k or more,” and put her discovery in context of her fellow journalists who have been seeing government PR work as the next step along their career paths:

When government has – and uses – taxpayer $$$ to lure bright, young media professionals away with much bigger paychecks to do PR/keep reporters at bay/nod appreciatively, doesn’t that contribute to the growing imbalance between those seeking facts/truth &those paid to “manage”it?

This is a topic on which I’ve commented regularly for a long time.  We now have a revolving door system in which, even if journalists aren’t thinking about going into government, they have to understand that it is part of their potential career path.  Moreover, as Gregg highlights, it’s among the more lucrative routes they can take.

That’s where the Emperor’s famous line comes in.  I’ve returned to this developing career path so often mainly because I thought it might have some explanatory power for why journalists seem, on the one hand, suspicious of groups like the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity that want to shrink government; Gregg once blocked me on Twitter, for example.  “On the other hand,” journalists seem willing to accept the premises of big-government advocates.

The thing is, government isn’t intrinsically progressive so much as it’s intrinsically monopolistic.  As, more and more, we empower government to set the course for our society, officials will, more and more, think it a basic function of government to shape public opinion in the right ways.  That will mean promoting nigh-upon-religious values, but more than anything, it will mean promoting the interests of the people in government.  Governor Raimondo has been a master of this.

The question, then, is what journalists are going to do about it.  Will they be more skeptical about big government as a solution to the world’s problems?  Will they counterbalance the government spin by raising the profile of people and organizations who are trying to offer a counter-force — even when we do so from the political right?

In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker is only saved from the Emperor’s cold wrath when he manages to draw out his father’s buried paternal instincts.  Unfortunately, the stage of modern politics does not seem to include a Darth Vader character willing to sacrifice himself for the good of journalism.

Sixteen or seventeen years ago, my grandfather and I had a meaningful moment that dissipated his look of exhausted frustration for a time.  We both saw, at that moment, how we were approaching a question with the same values, but with different awareness of how things had been and how they had changed.  Maybe something like that is possible for journalism, too.



  • Joe Smith

    Wait, this is a reporter for the same paper that endorsed the current administration for another four year, no? Remember one of the biggest counter-balancing forces to government accountability is the election process. According to the PROJO media kit, the PROJO reaches 51% of RI adults.

    Print journalist salaries would rise if (1) the demand for them increased relative to the supply and/or (2) the marginal revenue product (increase to the paper’s bottom line) increased due to journalist.

    At the start of the decade, the hot trend was ebooks would replace
    hardcover books. A couple of years ago, NPD BookScan data reported by
    Publishers Weekly showed that hardcover print unit sales held steady
    over the past 5 years while ebooks declined, and hardcover books outsold
    ebooks in 2016 for the first time since 2011.

    Maybe newspapers should offer better product(s) instead of complaining about a competing labor market (and the 6 to 1 PR stat is not public sector PR, but both public and private).

    After all, nothing is stopping the PROJO from running more “counter spin” analysis (like politicfact) or weighting candidates with more substance than spin.

  • Monique Chartier

    Excellent analysis. Of course, state government doesn’t need a quarter of the communications people and firms it retains at taxpayer expense, especially as the vast majority DO NOT ACTUALLY COMMUNICATE ANYTHING most of the time.

    More to the point, as Justin has been pointing out, the real purpose in hiring reporters (and at absurdly inflated salaries) is to 1.) silence potential critics with a significant platform and 2.) encourage a lack of real reporting among those journalists still in the field by waving around a carrot to get them to “behave”.

  • Monique Chartier

    (… meant to add: guiltily enjoying another terrific GIF.)

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