The New York Times (NYT) publishes an opinion piece by Russian president Vladimir Putin. The NYT then publishes a “behind-the-scenes” story revealing that Ketchum Public Relations pitched the editorial to the paper. First, pitching ideas to editorial boards is standard PR practice. Second, it is very likely that Ketchum also wrote the editorial because that is also standard practice. What is unusual here is the small degree of transparency offered by the Times. It seems a “nothing to see here; these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” maneuver. Journalists typically do not like to talk about the role of PR in their business despite the long tradition of collaboration (some might say manipulation; I say it depends) between the two professions. As early as the 1920s, according to sociologist Michael Schudson (2003), “Figures circulated among journalists that 50 or 60 percent of stories, even in the venerable New York Times, were inspired by press agents” (p. 83).
So why did the NYT choose to show a little ankle here? Perhaps we have reached the point where the U.S. people are so jaded about consumerism that the NYT knows there will not be much outrage. Only the academics who study media might rant, or those pesky Occupy types who still recognize the military industrial complex through the numbing haze of swooshes, sound bites, and underemployment. That’s my hunch.
The decision to publish the editorial in the first place is clearer to me. I read an interesting article this week with a quote from former head cheese Bill Keller as to why he decided to publish the locations of secret prisons throughout the world during the George W. Bush phase of the never-ending war on terror. Was it Keller’s commitment to a watch-dog press, that kind of First Amendment as bazooka so celebrated in Hollywood movies? Nope. Keller said it was because the Bush presidency was already weak. Politics, pure and complicated. This implies that had the existence of the prisons been revealed at a stage near the height of Bush’s popularity, the NYT might not have published. Look no further than the mainstream media’s complicity in selling the Iraq war for the government and you find support for this argument. So if I’m right, perhaps the NYT views Obama as a now weak president. Perhaps the powerful are already looking forward to the next puppet?
Which brings me back to a point that keeps getting lost in the story-behind-a-story. The leader of Russia employs an American PR firm. Let that sink in for a moment. I am not suggesting that we return to some form of Cold War propaganda. I do not find Ketchum to be any more un-American than any other global business. Instead, we should look closely at this new period of propaganda. Late capitalism has largely dispensed with tactics like Red baiting, hauling out the enmity when it serves, as we see in Putin’s (Ketchum’s) bashing of American exceptionalism. They are right in their characterization of the American government, but the barbs are meant to incite comments from eagle T-shirt wearing gun toters (hey, Dad, love you) and longer page views, not to inspire some kind of deep reflection. It’s also correct that Putin (Ketchum) taking the moral high ground is absurd; just ask the gays. Ditto too for the irony of Putin (Ketchum) exercising a right to free speech in a way he/they would not allow in his own country.
Perhaps “right to free speech” is the wrong phrase. After all, the NYT would not accept my editorial on Syria. Our national paper of record is an extremely powerful platform for the extremely powerful few. Letters to the editor are a subatomic opening for grass roots organizers. Comments online are even worse. For example, it is common practice for PR people to post comments to articles with views in support of their clients. It is a handy, if completely unethical way to justify the existence of PR firms.
The process behind this editorial, and numerous other “news” and “opinion” articles casts light on the machinations of power. The continuing fiction of U.S. vs. Russia (the band formerly known as The Soviet Union) makes for good business, Syria be damned. In the fog of our diplomatic war games, the Syrian civilians are the ones who pay the real price. I would love to see the PR firms behind relief organizations pen more editorials in favor of transferring the budget for bombs to the budget for humanitarian aid to Syria and to bordering countries now grappling with an influx of refugees. I’m afraid, however, that the NYT would not find this “newsworthy.”
Schudson, M. (2003). The sociology of news. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.