At Commencement, Journalism has a Hazy Future  

Norman Solomon’s Column

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.

A senior adviser to the huge lending institution offered this explanation: “We decided that you can’t have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of police officers.” Presumably, the meeting of ideas will flourish behind a cordon of passwords, bytes and pixels.

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.

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