Monday, March 22, 2004

He Starts Here And Ends Up...Over There Somewhere

John Branston had the Memphis Flyer cover story last week, with "Policy & PR: How taxpayer-funded public relations are shaping the news." It purports to be a look at the use of PR firms by government, but mid-way through the article it veers in a whole different direction. Neither one nor the other, it ends up leaving me dissatisfied.

Branston starts with an overview of the use of PR firms across the spectrum of local government and quasi-governmental bodies. Not bad, but he neglects details like how much all these bodies are spending. He then lurches into a look at the Madison Avenue "light rail" boondoggle that dovetails with what I have to say further below.

Then, almost half-way through, things get weird. He starts talking about Federal District Attorneys and some cases that might shed light into their offices. He's talked about them before, hinting darkly of shadowy things, and does so again. I guess it's a hobby horse of his, one that he doesn't have enough evidence on yet to speak out about. But you get the sense he really wants to. Really wants to, if you get my drift and I'm sure you do.

Next comes a long passage on the arrival of the Grizzlies, with the attendant controversial media/government hustle. This part is worth quoting:
The big announcement and press conference was three years ago at the Plaza Club with the mayors, NBA Now leaders, and officials of FedEx and AutoZone. Several downtown PR firms and the Center City Commission made sure the room was packed with a friendly audience.

Anyone who remembered the controversy over building The Pyramid knew that a new publicly funded arena would face a tough fight. The true cost would be every bit of $250 million plus the debt on The Pyramid. The well-orchestrated show of solidarity represented only a slice of the business community, much less the taxpayers. The challenge was getting someone influential to say so. PR firms for the Grizzlies and the Public Building Authority tried to keep the focus off of politics and cost concerns by taking reporters to see a new arena in Indianapolis. But sizzle wasn't the issue.

Mike Rose was an obvious call -- a big UM booster, basketball fan, longtime Memphian, and a former Promus and Holiday Inns CEO familiar with nine-digit numbers. But there were complications. Rose was long gone from Promus and Holiday Inns. He lived in Nashville, and his ex-wife, Gail Rose, was a leader of NBA Now. That left the hard questions to a few "naysayer" reporters and "mavericks" like Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey, lawyer Duncan Ragsdale, and housewife Heidi Shafer.
I'll admit to density here and say I'm not quite sure what he's trying to get at. Rose was "an obvious call" to whom? The "nay-sayers?" The NBA Now tiger team? Branston goes on to relate and praise a Rose guest editorial in the CA that criticises the FedEx deal, showing how reporters dropped the ball, but do we know that Rose would have done as John suggests? Why couldn't the Flyer have done it? Why didn't they? Hmmm....

He's right, though, about the critics being pushed out on the fringe. The local media completely walked away from their duty, in favor of self-interest. Newpapers and television had a financial stake in getting the team here, as well as the prestige and freebies and access. That was an abandonment of duty and the clearest indictment of the local media you could ask for. But I wish that Branston had gone deeper and explained, for example, who hired which PR firms. Were they hired with City money? That would seem to be a conflict of interest -- using PR firms to influence public opinion about a matter of City spending? I'd love to see Branston fill in the story; I really would. Name names, John.

But then comes the strangest part of the article. Branston wanders into a vague, skimmy look at the Commercial Appeal (which serves to stand in for all local print and television media, I guess) and how it approaches PR before just generally criticizing the Commercial Appeal. He spends some time talking about the paper's "new direction" and its new choices in terms of coverage. Things end with a vague glare at the paper's new direction and a seeming paean to days gone by. Odd.

I agree with his points, for the most part, and he asks some good questions about how newspapers can survive and stay relevant in the media-rich age.

This passage sticks in my craw:
Peck is correct that nobody cuts out a story about the inside stuff over at the finance committee and puts it up on their refrigerator door.
Is that the purpose of a newspaper? To end up on the refrigerator? Fish, cats and birds everywhere would be saddened to know that.

Seriously, the duty of a newspaper is to get into places most citizens can't. Especially in government, where a few people in a finance committee room can make decisions that will affect hundreds of thousands of people. I couldn't care less about some arts social, but I care deeply about the agency that takes my tax money to fund that arts social. I want to know! Recipes, wine tastings, movie reviews, humor, comics, cute pictures, agony aunt columns, and a million other things like that I can get anywhere. But if the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer don't report the doings of boards, committees, commisions, Councils, etc., who will? How will I know? Yes, television will give me video, but they are time-limited and unable to do in-depth reporting. Newspapers alone can give me the whole story, in a format I can save and study whenever I want. (Though the Internet is fast catching up there. Imagine if someone had put the City Council's bashing of Carol Chumney, full and unedited, on line? No mediation, no massaging for structure, no missed context, no editing.)

Branston even manages to elide an important point about the mix of government, PR and the press. He says, near the end of the article:
In some cases, CA political reporters have gotten out of their ruts by getting out of the business. In less than two years, the paper has lost three state capitol reporters and a local political columnist. Peck said he has fired only one reporter, whom he did not name.
Tie this in with something from the beginning:
Tom Jones, who started as the spokesman and wordsmith of Shelby County government, vastly expanded the role under mayors Bill Morris and Jim Rout. Jones helped make county policies as well as sell them and served on the board of several agencies. His successor, Susan Adler Thorp, has a more traditional role under Mayor A C Wharton.
You have to tie that together because Branston doesn't bother to point out that Thorp was the former CA chief political columnist! Doesn't anyone find it interesting that she would jump ship right after the election to take this job?

I've written before about her behavior in the four week period just before and right after the County Mayoral elections. She wrote ten columns in that time -- five of which were directly critical, to the point of viscious attack, of losing candidate George Flinn. She even wrote an "exit interview" with him after his defeat! She wrote two columns about obscure, hopeless candidates -- the kind she had dismissively blasted in the past -- facing strong certain-win Republicans. Not once did she write a column discussing or praising AC Wharton! Her only mentions of him were in conjunction with Flinn. Thorp was unquestionably partisan, which wouldn't be so bad if she was honest about it. But being followed by her stepping into the Communications Director role for AC Wharton, it fairly screams of ethical breach and misuse of her position.

And yet...not a word. Same for Paula Wade, whom Branston doesn't mention. She was a vociferous supporter of TennCare during her CA tenure. Where is she now? With the State of Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, which has oversight on guess which program? Yup, TennCare.

Anyway, Branston gave us a good start before he wandered into something he seems to want to say real bad, but won't quite get out. I suspect, with nothing but my own reading of his work to suggest it, that Branston's journalistic training and sense of ethics is what's holding him back from a real paint-blistering screed against government and the local press. You can see him nudging the edges of it here. I wish he'd let go. He's been around Memphis long enough, and seems more than smart and informed enough, to "connect the dots" as he calls it, in the incestuous greed-party that is Memphis government in a way I'd dearly love to read. Real "flip the rock and watch the creepy crawlies run away" stuff, I'm sure.

Remember, John, it's an opinion column. You can say what you think.

By the way, come back to this topic again, but focus on the firms, the government agencies, the money and the relationships. Most definitely the money. There's gold yet to be mined there, too.

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