OP-ED: The media gets zapped in most recent Potter book

Suppose a best-selling novel accused a national newspaper of publishing false stories. Suppose it also portrayed the paper as being the mouthpiece for powerful government interests driven by the desire for total information control. And suppose this book were being devoured avidly by millions of kids, many as young as six years old.

Suppose a best-selling novel accused a national newspaper of publishing false stories. Suppose it also portrayed the paper as being the mouthpiece for powerful government interests driven by the desire for total information control. And suppose this book were being devoured avidly by millions of kids, many as young as six years old.

Have you read the most recent Harry Potter book? While children's literature has always vilified authority figures (from teachers to dog catchers), the amazingly cynical portrait of media and government in J.K. Rowling's latest tome gives us a window on her life these past few years...and, perhaps, on ours as communicators for years to come. "So The Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?" said Hermione scathingly. "The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl," Rita Skeeter said coldly. When was the last time a children's book used media distrust as a plot point? In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry is the victim of a smear campaign by The Daily Prophet, newspaper of record for magical folk. The Prophet has been ordered by the Ministry of Magic to suppress reports that evil Lord Voldemort ("He Who Must Not Be Named") has returned. Since Harry is the only person to have seen him recently (at the end of book four), it's his word against the paper's and the Ministry's. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it's tough to win a fight against anyone who buys ink by the barrel. While a teen reading the book would probably see through the cynicism of the plot device, younger readers who might not be expected to pay attention to scandals like the Jayson Blair debacle or the disappearance of the global-warming section from the latest EPA Report, are being exposed to their fictional equivalents, thanks to the ubiquity of the Harry Potter phenomenon. If a new generation comes of age predisposed to distrusting the media, how will PR people educate about healthcare advances, promote consumer products and services, defend our clients' reputations, and foster participation in public dialogue? Harry Potter may be teaching lessons that the PR industry will be contending with 10 or 15 years from now. America's faith in institutions of all types has been in decline for some time. Against a steady backdrop of scandals, public confidence in the media continues to erode. According to a May USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, only 36% of the public believe news organizations get the facts straight. And the Brookings Institute notes that more than half of all Americans believe government employees are motivated by personal self-interest more than by service to the country. Of course, it's not such a bad thing that people don't entirely trust institutions. Healthy distrust is often the force that prevents society from going too far in one direction or another. But beware when that distrust evolves into pervasive cynicism. Reading how The Daily Prophet and the Ministry tried to censor the Voldemort story, other images sprang to mind: Decades of pass-along pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Brokerage firms whose analysts acted as cheerleaders for "junk" stocks while investors lost billions. What influences kids today? Parents, teachers, friends - and mass media in all its forms. Surely there is no medium more massive at the moment than the Harry Potter juggernaut. It's not difficult to imagine that early exposure to negative depictions of media and government could foreshadow a cynicism in upcoming generations even more pervasive than the famously low tolerance of Generations X and Y. I wonder how recent world events will influence Rowling's already acid view of society's institutions, especially the media. She's already shown herself to be disturbingly prescient: Accusations that intelligence reports were distorted to justify war in Iraq - true or not - eerily echo the Ministry's distortions in waging war against Harry Potter. What effect will her future fulminations have on an ever-increasing audience of readers? There could be half a decade until the final installment in the series, after which it will be read and reread for years by younger and younger fans. Let's hope that something comes along to rehabilitate the Ministry and The Daily Prophet before then.
  • Lauren Letellier is an SVP and partner in the New York office of Fleishman-Hillard.

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