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Hacks and flacks

In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic writes that some of his friends in the public relations business have been “inundated with calls from journalists looking to escape our profession before it dies, as opposed to after it dies.”

I’ve heard from a few journalists myself in recent months. No, we’re not hiring right now.

Goldberg goes on to report that Jeff Birnbaum has left The Washington Times to serve as the president of BGR Public Relations in Washington. What’s now BGR was founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Republican White House aide Ed Rogers back in 1991.

This is interesting because Birnbaum made his reputation covering the lobbying business in Washington. Now, he will be working with and for lobbyists.

“If I were younger, and if we lived in a different age, I might feel slightly condemnatory, but this is the world we live in,” Goldberg writes. “All this gyrating does raise a couple of questions, though: Can journalists turn themselvs into skilled flacks? And, if all the journalists become flacks, who will the flacks flack to?

“The answer to the second question is easy — they’ll flack to underpaid, undertrained bloggers. For an answer to the first question, I turned to my friend Richard Mintz, who owns the Harbour Group, a public relations firm in Washington. He, too, is seeing a rise in queries from stressed-out reporters, but he was not entirely positive about their utility.

”’Journalists by their nature don’t make great advocates or public relations people because they’re trained to be objective rather than to take sides,’ he said. ‘They also tend to work alone, and they have no business experience.’ Other than that, of course, hacks make excellent flacks.”

This brings up the whole issue of “crossing the fence,” one I’ve dealt with numerous times during my career. Back when newspapers were much more successful financially and newspapermen were thus far more arrogant, some had the idea that you couldn’t leave the newspaper business for a public relations job or a political campaign and then return. In their minds, it was like being a priest. Or being in the Mafia.

To put it as delicately as I can, that’s crap.

I left journalism to work full time on a political campaign in 1984. When that campaign concluded, I went back to the newspaper business.

In 1989, I left the newspaper business again to work full time on a political campaign. Guess what? When that campaign was over, I returned to journalism.

When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette created the position of political editor during Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for the presidency, I was selected to fill that job. I was asked a legitimate question. It went something like this: “You’ve worked on two political campaigns. Both were Republican campaigns. In Arkansas, most of the officeholders you cover will be Democrats. Is this a problem?”

I’ve always felt that one’s body of work and past experience will tell you far more than anything a person can say in a job interview. So, since I had been the Arkansas Democrat’s Washington correspondent from 1986-89 and covered our two senators virtually every day during that period, I suggested that those hiring me could talk to Democrats Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. I felt certain those two pillars of the Arkansas political world would say I had been tough but always fair as a reporter.

I can tell you this much: Because I had worked full time on two political campaigns, I was a much better political editor of the state’s largest newspaper than I otherwise would have been. I better understood the games the consultants and the pollsters played. I understood more about raising funds and leading volunteers.

And when I left that job in July 1996 to become the communications director for a new governor named Mike Huckabee, I was a much better hire because I had spent so many years as a reporter and editor. I would have been far less effective to Huckabee had I followed the traditional political route of Young Republican, College Republican, campaign worker, governor’s staff member.

I started working in the newspaper business when I was in high school. I was never a member of the Young Republicans. I was never a member of the College Republicans. I was hired because I was a communications professional.

The communications director for a statewide officeholder should serve as a go-between. I would at least like to think that those in the Arkansas media knew I would never knowingly give them false information. If I found out later that I had said something that wasn’t entirely correct, I would set the record straight as quickly as possible. I was honest in letting them know that there would be times when I would be unable to tell them all I knew. However, I would never lie.

I would attempt to be their advocate in the governor’s office. I would try to give the governor my best advice on how to respond and my best analysis on the fallout from certain acts. It wasn’t always an easy position to be in. More than once, an angry governor would look at me and talk about “your friends in the media.”

He knew, however, that he had hired me to give him just that side of the equation. He always listened. Had he not, I would not have stayed for more than nine years.

So, for any journalists out there thinking about jumping that fence, don’t worry. You can always return. And if you do return, you’ll probably be a better reporter, writer and thinker than you were before you left.

I just hope too many of you don’t leave. I worry about the decline of print journalism in this country. It’s vital. And there are few things I enjoy more than reading multiple newspapers each day. That, however, is another post for another day.

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