Sunday, November 30, 2008

Journalists Join the Dark Side

NBC News correspondent Dan Abrams
(Photo from whereistheoutrage.net)

Veteran journalist and former NBC News legal correspondent Dan Abrams is jumping ship after 15 years in the industry and moving to the private sector. His newly formed media consulting firm, Abrams Research, is actively recruiting working journalists, bloggers and radio and news personalities as "media experts" to advise their corporate clients.

In a New York Times article, Abrams said there is "an enormous number of very talented, experienced media professionals around the world who would be ready, willing and able to advise businesses on media strategies" and bragged that in just five days, Abrams Research received over 600 applications, many of them household names in journalism.

Having endured the treachery of home town heroes as a sports fan, I understand loyalty only goes so far and sometimes you need to think with your wallet. As the economy worsens, journalists, especially print journalists, aren’t going to pass up the opportunity to make some money on the side as consultants. The real problem here is that instead of defecting completely, they’re becoming double agents, cutting through the spin as journalists during the day and helping companies dish it out as consultants by night.

In his Gawker post "Dan Abrams’ Ring of Media Informants," Ryan Tate sums up the issue at hand: "But a general magazine editor, or blogger… really should not be getting paid to answer questions about how a publication — like, say, his — might cover something when he may well have to decide how to cover that very thing a short time later, with the added complication of having been paid/bribed by the subject."

Abrams insists that his company's ethics guidelines include "a ban on full-time journalists consulting with companies in their area of coverage." But consultants need to be familiar in the area they’re advising on. This becomes a difficult line to toe: an expert must be familiar enough with a topic to know what they’re talking about, but also be sure that they will not to be asked to cover it.

Conflict of interests aside, I’d say it’s impossible to be a media consultant for corporations and a good journalist at the same time. Call me na├»ve, but hopefully a good journalist is motivated by the belief that a healthy and free press is important to a democracy and a public service to the electorate. A media consultant, on the other hand, helps companies skew media coverage to their favor. It views media is a tool to increase business. Aren't these two attitudes mutually exclusive? Could they both exist in one person?

According to former Washington Post VP Ben Bradlee, a good reporter has "got to love what they're doing; they've got to be serious about turning over rocks, opening doors. The story drives you." This type of doggedness only graces those who actually believe in what they’re doing. I think it's safe to assume that those journalists applying to Abrams Research don't fit into this category.

5 comments:

Cindy Yeung said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cindy Yeung said...

Will,

Very insightful blog on long time journalists who seem to have abandoned their first passion in reporting. But can it really be considered joining the dark side, as you argue?
Honestly, I'm not all that surprised that Abrams received more than 600 applications. Under the current economic recession, journalists are getting laid off left and right, regardless of how long you've been faithful to the art of reportage: http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/cnn_cuts_entire_science_tech_t.php

Further, out of the bunch how many effective "media experts" do you think will emerge? Not a lot is going to fit the category.

Joseph Coscarelli said...

I, too, think it's a despicable for someone to pretend that they can be both an insider -- taking cash for secrets -- and a journalist, even if it's only "part-time." I can only hope that publications will wise up and not allow this practice to begin. Be an "expert" or do your job, but don't act like one does not affect the other.

Abe Fried-Tanzer said...

Will-
I think you've done a thorough analysis of the conflicting issues being raised here. The double standard of being an expert but ensuring that it's not something you're covering is very much reminiscent of Chomksy's filter of supposed experts. It's hard to weed out that very fine line where one individual can perfectly balance himself. One of the people I interviewed when writing about Chomsky's filter of flak says that a journalist should only declare himself as non-partisan if he's completely convinced of a freedom from any bias, but such a conviction is very difficult to attain. I think this situation makes that near-impossible, and more importantly, disregards it and ignores it altogether.

Rhea Anklesaria said...

You have hit the conflict of interest nail on the head: "An expert must be familiar enough with a topic to know what they’re talking about, but also be sure that they will not to be asked to cover it." If that were the case then we are either getting substandard journalism, with reporters refusing to cover subjects they may actually be an authority on, or corporations are getting substandard media experts - no guesses as to which one is more likely.
I agree with Tate's point - journalists cannot possible hope to be objective, while at the same time touting corporate viewpoints.
This inspired me to reflect on the fact that the fine line between journalists and media consultants is getting finer. While journalists see the difference as clear and night and day, corporations view news generation and public affairs as two sides of the same marketing campaign. Journalists are very much in demand as media experts.