I used to reserve special disdain for tobacco industry executives and their apologists. They sold sickness and death, and smiled as they lied about their business.
Lately, I've shifted my contempt to the deceivers running rampant in a much more dangerous enterprise: government. Next to politicians and the people who speak for them, corporate PR folks - even the semi-reformed tobacco peddlers, who now at least acknowledge what their product does - look a lot better.
This is not a rant against all politicians or their public affairs. I'm convinced that a solid majority of people in public service are honest. I believe they're out, mostly, to serve the public, that they compromise in the best sense of the word. But the blatant, growing corruption of ideals and practices in politics is poisoning public discourse. It's infecting America with a civic illness we'll need years, maybe decades, to cure.
Media and PR pros have played a major role in the decline. Now they can help us return to our collective senses. But they must step up to the issue first - loudly.
I'm writing the day before the 2006 midterm elections, and I'm more depressed about the situation than ever. In campaign after campaign, especially contests for Congress, the level of sleaze has risen to new heights, with honor sinking to new lows.
Candidates and their advocates launched attack ads that lied blatantly about opponents and their records. They boasted of non-accomplishments or claimed credit for others' work. They offered pathetic excuses for misbehavior and absurd justifications for governmental malpractice.
Journalists share in the disgrace, serving more as stenographers than doing their jobs. Oh, we see a few "ad-watch" type stories where media organizations examine a specific ad's truthfulness or lack thereof, but those few efforts are all but lost in the avalanche.
Surely this must gall honest people in business and PR. They could go to jail for pulling some of the stunts that politicians consider routine, including the way the government keeps its fantasy-world accounts.
But if corporate PR pros don't think political sleaze rubs off on them, they're kidding themselves. In an era when politicians are marketed and pitched like products, why should people assume the people doing the pitching aren't in the same league?
Does the acceptance of mean-spirited dishonesty as a baseline condition in politics and governance generate sleaze in other spheres, as well? The accelerating corporate corruption in recent years might imply this, but there's no clear cause and effect.
I wish PR pros would decline to work for politicians who abuse our trust so thoroughly. Even better, agencies and corporate PR heads - and especially the companies that hire PR people - could weed out the participants in political trickery.
In the end, the public has to take some responsibility. When people would rather watch puerile (un)reality television shows than learn about real issues and ask difficult questions, maybe we deserve it when politicians treat us like children, or idiots, or both.
Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His blog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.com/blog).