Ambiguity of 'public good' standard makes it an inadequate benchmark for 'shield law'

Recently a contact demanded that we pull a story, primarily because of the way we found out about it.

Recently a contact demanded that we pull a story, primarily because of the way we found out about it.

We had crossed no ethical line, and, in fact, were given the story in a press release. But the client didn't want the information passed on to us, so the contact tried to have the story stopped.

When we demurred, the frustrated individual fumed, "You're not The New York Times," and appealed to our sense of "professional courtesy" as a trade publication not to publish the story. Needless to say, that tactic was not successful - not to mention downright rude - and the story ran. But I was astonished to find myself uttering such journalistic rants as, "We owe it to our readers to report the truth when we know it," in response.

Even though my tone was a bit overcooked, this issue deserved my momentary pomposity. By invoking The New York Times to validate the argument, they were effectively saying that there is one standard for mainstream journalism and another for trade journalism because we serve a discrete audience while the mainstream media serves the "public good."

This whole concept of "public good" is one that is coming up a lot lately. Paul Holmes, in his column on the opposite page, as well as others commenting on the proposed Free Flow of Information Act (known as the "shield law"), have focused a lot on this notion to either support or denounce the legislation. If the media is obsessed with Brad Pitt rather than famine in Niger, the argument goes, it doesn't deserve to enjoy the privileges of responsible and public-serving outlets.

Taking that argument through to its natural conclusion, one must ask who will define this so-called "public good." The government is the obvious answer, right? Thus, media priorities will be set by whoever is in power, and not by the whims of a market that craves stories about Nick and Jessica as opposed to those about famine and genocide.

The rules of media protection have to apply equally, or not at all. As the PR industry depends on unfettered media channels, it must defend the right of media outlets to determine whether or not they are serving their audience.

Hughes must position US as a global citizen

Karen Hughes has finally been confirmed as the State Department's top public affairs official, inheriting the daunting task of improving the image of the US overseas. Voice of America reports that Hughes said she would tap the private sector for help. "American companies and universities, foundations, and our travel industry interact with people across the world every day," she reportedly said. "I welcome ideas to more fully engage the private sector."

Before we start bombarding the region with happy images of multinational soft-drink consumers, we must surely listen to and diagnose the problems. But Hughes and her staff can already take a page from the book of effective global corporations as they begin this difficult process. The best companies do not define themselves by their headquarters, but by their mission. They are global citizens, not merely "American," just as the US is part of a global community, and must learn to speak the language of that role.

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