EDITORIAL: Journalists have as many lessons to learn from the Ketchum imbroglio as PR pros do

Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University and media critic, stirred up a minor blogosphere frenzy when he berated the PR blog community for not jumping on the Ketchum/ Armstrong Williams story.

Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University and media critic, stirred up a minor blogosphere frenzy when he berated the PR blog community for not jumping on the Ketchum/ Armstrong Williams story.

He and other so-called media pundits have spent a lot of time lamenting the dire ethical state of the PR world. But it is surprising how little of this analysis is directed at the journalism profession itself, by its own critics. Observers have lambasted Ketchum for saying that Williams is the one responsible for disclosing the arrangement with the Department of Education, and that he is effectively to blame for the entire situation. The journalist community seems somewhat willing to write this whole situation off as an aberration, focusing on the fact that Williams is not a "real" journalist. Then came last week's revelation in The Washington Post that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was paid $21,500 to help consult on President Bush's marriage initiative. That should put media companies on notice that they must look to their own houses to make sure that a situation like this isn't looming. Bob Steele, who is the Nelson Poynter Scholar for journalism values at the Poynter Institute, says that he doesn't know of any media companies that are investigating their own journalists' practices, though he believes some probably will. But others may be complacent in the knowledge that Williams' PR connections make him separate from the profession. "The belief would be that this is an exception," he says. That attitude, however, is potentially dangerous, warns Steele. "It should be a warning call," he notes, "just like the CBS issue was a warning call for us all." The perception that Williams was not a "real journalist" is erroneous, he adds. "What Williams was doing would certainly fall into the definition of journalism. He was opinionated and had a point of view, but that's journalism." Steele brings up another point that has gone rather overlooked in this story. Whether they disclose it or not, journalists should not be paid to write or broadcast about anything. Yes, that may seem obvious, but Ketchum's assertion has been that had Williams simply told people he was under contract, all would be fine. Many have accepted that as a fact, or have been ambiguous about the underlying principle behind it. But the practice is fundamentally wrong. Sometimes the minutiae of the issue, and a simplistic focus on transparency, can obscure what is right and what is wrong. "[Disclosure] alerts people to wrongdoing, it doesn't eradicate it," Steele says. "Disclosure does not mitigate it." ------- 'Boomerang' belies returning staffers' value Gary Thompson, EVP with Schwartz Communications, recently took issue with my use of the term "boomerang" to describe a former employee who returns to a company. A boomerang, he pointed out, does not leave by choice, but is flung into the ether. It also does not control when or if it will return. But most importantly, when a boomerang returns, it is exactly the same as it was when it left. Not so with the rehired employee, who has picked up skills and experience in a new environment and will potentially offer much more to the company upon return. It's an excellent point and an important perspective to remember when welcoming returnees back to the fold.

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