PAUL HOLMES: Times' firing of reporter with PR background should alarm those seeking journalism jobs

All reporters are human beings. All human beings have opinions. Therefore, all reporters have opinions.

All reporters are human beings. All human beings have opinions. Therefore, all reporters have opinions.

As a logical syllogism, that's pretty much unassailable. But it's not something media firms have learned to live with, if recent actions at The New York Times are any guide. The venerable Times has made some headlines - though not nearly as many as it should have made - after it decided in its less than infinite wisdom to dismiss stringer Jay Blotcher because he once had provided public relations support to the AIDS advocacy group ACT-UP. The Times isn't worried that Blotcher will be unable to provide balanced coverage of the issues because Blotcher had never covered a story involving gay rights or AIDS or anything remotely related, and it would have been a simple matter for an assignment editor to ensure that such stories were given to other reporters. Susan Edgerley, the Times' metropolitan editor, told gay media, "I am setting the bar high to protect against any appearance of conflict of interest that might result through the hiring of stringers and leg-people. My motivation is expediency, as well as ethics." Actually, as far as I can see, it's just expediency - and highly inconsistent expediency at that. As AIDS activist Larry Kramer points out in a letter to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the paper still employs Larry Altman, who often writes about his former employers at the Centers for Disease Control, and it has made no move to dismiss Bernard Weinraub, who writes about Hollywood, where his wife is head of Columbia Pictures. PR people should be concerned about the impact on their career choices. If you're handling PR for an advocacy group while waiting for your big break in journalism, be warned that you might have disqualified yourself from one day working for the paper of record. If you're doing some volunteer work for a cancer charity, understand that you're on record as caring about an issue - a fact that surely makes you unsuitable to write about it. But PR people also should be concerned about the essential fraud being perpetrated by the Times. Because rest assured, firing reporters who have a record of activism will do nothing to eliminate bias. (Though Edgerley, to her credit, doesn't try to pretend it will: She talks only about eliminating "any appearance of conflict of interest.") Because, as I said earlier, all reporters have opinions - the only issue is whether you have a right to know what they are or whether they should keep them hidden. Moves like this will only ensure reporters keep their opinions to themselves, making the media less transparent and its biases harder to discern. That does no service to readers.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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