'Earned' media prompts other labels for bending perceptions

In the annals of agenda setting, one of the most notable feats has to be the so-called "death tax."

In the annals of agenda setting, one of the most notable feats has to be the so-called "death tax."

A bunch of ultra-wealthy families, aided and abetted by ideological zealots and dissemblers, turned Congress and many otherwise sensible Americans against the inheritance tax, one of the fairest and socially most useful levies - and a key part of the strategy was renaming it into something it wasn't.

This tack doesn't always work. Consider the clumsy, absurd, and ultimately fleeting effort by the White House and its friends at Fox News to morph Middle East suicide bombers into "homicide bombers."

The way labels can bend perceptions came to mind when I heard that "free media" had an updated moniker: "earned media." In a way, I suppose, it's more accurate. Getting journalists and other people to talk about a product, company, political candidate, or idea, as opposed to paying for advertising, can certainly entail some cost to the promoters of such things. And there's no doubt that many PR-assisted stories deserve coverage in the first place.

But just as the word "earned" is grotesque when discussing the unconscionable loot many CEOs extract from shareholders, it can feel hollow in this setting, as well. Coverage is hardly earned when it derives from less forthright methods, as is too often the case.
Being as it seems to make some folks feel better about their work, however, there's no harm in using the expression. Maybe it merits company, though. Such as:

Burned media. Telling the press and public things that are untrue and then getting caught. What's that related expression? Right: once burned, twice shy.

Spurned media. This is how I used to feel in my days at the San Jose Mercury News when companies would give tech announcements ahead of time to our competitors, but not to us. Then, adding insult, PR folks would call - generally while we were reading the news in, say, The New York Times - and assume we were now eager to get the story second.

Sterned media. In our neo-Puritan era, where violence is entertainment and sex is unmentionable, the Howard Sterns are fleeing broadcasting for cable, satellite, and the Web. The blue noses and FCC, a.k.a. the Federal Censorship Commission, are turning broadcasting into pabulum. Call it free or earned media, but on the airwaves it may soon be worthless.

Turned media. In spy tradecraft, when you "turn" someone, you persuade them, via money or other inducements, to come to your side. Politically inspired payments to propagandists masquerading as journalists, laundered through cynical PR agencies that should be ashamed, would fit into this category.

Urned media. After cremation, ashes are put in urns. This seems to be what the White House, and others in political and corporate life who want to control the news, might prefer. An exaggeration? Maybe, but these days you have to wonder, how much of one?

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.

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