So, Who Signs Your Paycheck?

About the Author:

John Dunbar

John Dunbar

John Dunbar is Managing Editor for financial and political news at the Center for Public Integrity.

I’ve been a reporter and/or editor for a couple of decades now, mostly investigating government and industry. I am accustomed to getting spun – or lied to. It’s part of the job.

I remember quarterly visits from the investor relations guy at the insurance company in Jacksonville, Fla., who wanted to make sure I “understood” the company’s earnings report. At AP, I got calls from corporate PR types who would explain complex issues before the FCC in succinct, self-serving language.

None of that bothered me, and it still doesn’t.

I’m sympathetic to anyone who is trying to make a buck. Where companies lose me is when they try to trick me. How do they do that? There are a handful of basic techniques. I want to toss a few of them out there and invite readers to share their own experience.

1.    The “white paper” and “think tank” approach. My favorite example of this was the “Progress and Freedom Foundation,” which was funded by telecommunications and media firms. Reporters would cite their studies all the time without mentioning their backers.

2.    The “Astroturf” campaign. In the electronic age, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to create a front group. I wrote about a “nonpartisan” youth group that was anything but – all they needed was a couple of Facebook pages, a partisan pollster and a webpage, and off they went. Newspapers are still quoting these guys as a voice of young America.

3.    Just buy ‘em off. This is a technique that finally caught up with AT&T Inc. in its failed buyout of T-Mobile USA. We wrote about a homeless shelter that wrote a letter supporting the merger, and also got $50,000 from the company. And way back in 2003, I did a more intensive investigation into the cable industry’s effort to fight off “a la carte” pricing.

I think the Astroturf groups are the worst – I recall reading a story by a colleague that quoted a wireless industry point of view (from the CTIA), and as a counterpoint, quoted a “consumer organization” (My Wireless.org) that was created by the CTIA. That, my friends, is a PR home run.

I am regularly amazed at how easy it is to dupe a journalist. And it’s getting easier. Reporters are getting younger, less skeptical and far more overworked. “I need a quote! And I’m on deadline!” Who has time to vet the source?

For me, I came up with a simple rule. If you want me to read a study, tell me who paid for it. If you want me to listen to a “citizens group” that doesn’t appear to exist in any real sense, tell me who you work for. And if you are pushing for passage of something that seems counter to the interests of the group you supposedly represent, well, I need to know about your financial connections.

Chances are, I’m not going to quote you anyway, but if you don’t tell me, as a source, you are dead to me. So ask questions. This is good advice for everyone, not just reporters, especially during an election year.

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