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June 17, 2005

The secret engines of the world
Posted by Teresa at 11:21 AM * 74 comments

Paul Graham’s The Submarine talks about one of the secret engines of the world: the PR industry.

“Suits make a corporate comeback,” says the New York Times. Why does this sound familiar? Maybe because the suit was also back in February, January, September 2004, June 2004, March 2004, September 2003, February 2003, November 2002, April 2002, and February 2002. April 2001.

Why do the media keep running stories saying suits are back? Because PR firms tell them to. One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms….


PR is not dishonest. Not quite. In fact, the reason the best PR firms are so effective is precisely that they aren’t dishonest. They give reporters genuinely valuable information. A good PR firm won’t bug reporters just because the client tells them to; they’ve worked hard to build their credibility with reporters, and they don’t want to destroy it by feeding them mere propaganda.

If anyone is dishonest, it’s the reporters. The main reason PR firms exist is that reporters are lazy. Or, to put it more nicely, overworked. Really they ought to be out there digging up stories for themselves. But it’s so tempting to sit in their offices and let PR firms bring the stories to them. …

Once upon a time, I was the typesetter for a smallish weekly newspaper. I had keys to the place, and kept my own hours. The owners would leave me a stack of draft material. When they came back, the sheets of typeset repro would be hung up like the week’s laundry on a piece of string stretched across the office.

Here’s where their non-advertising content came from: The owners wrote the editorials and a small number of news stories themselves. Other bits of news came from the wire service. The syndicated features and columns arrived weekly in a single big manila envelope. And if all that plus the advertising wasn’t enough to fill the issue, which was usually the case, I’d start in on our stack of press releases.

The owners’ standing instructions were to go through, find the press releases that read most like news stories, and make any alterations necessary to improve that resemblance. I had a fairly good idea of how many column inches they’d need when it came time to make up the issue. All I had to do was give them that much plus a bit more, clean up everybody’s copy, and pick good press releases.

I hope most newspapers are a little less casual than that, but the underlying principle remains: reporting and newswriting takes work. Press releases are a freebie.

Where the work of PR firms really does get deliberately misleading is in the generation of “buzz.” They usually feed the same story to several different publications at once. And when readers see similar stories in multiple places, they think there is some important trend afoot. Which is exactly what they’re supposed to think.

At this point, if the mass media are inclined to further spin out a piece of trend journalism, they start quoting each other: “According to a story in the Springfield Bee-Picayune this week…”

I doubt PR firms realize it yet, but the Web makes it possible to track them at work. If you search for the obvious phrases, you turn up several efforts over the years to place stories about the return of the suit. For example, the Reuters article that got picked up by USA Today in September 2004. “The suit is back,” it begins.

Trend articles like this are almost always the work of PR firms. Once you know how to read them, it’s straightforward to figure out who the client is. With trend stories, PR firms usually line up one or more “experts” to talk about the industry generally. In this case we get three: the NPD Group, the creative director of GQ, and a research director at Smith Barney. When you get to the end of the experts, look for the client. And bingo, there it is: The Men’s Wearhouse.

Not surprising, considering The Men’s Wearhouse was at that moment running ads saying “The Suit is Back.” Talk about a successful press hit—a wire service article whose first sentence is your own ad copy.

The secret to finding other press hits from a given pitch is to realize that they all started from the same document back at the PR firm. Search for a few key phrases and the names of the clients and the experts, and you’ll turn up other variants of this story.

Casual Fridays are out and dress codes are in writes Diane E. Lewis in The Boston Globe. In a remarkable coincidence, Ms. Lewis’s industry contacts also include the creative director of GQ.

Ripped jeans and T-shirts are out, writes Mary Kathleen Flynn in US News & World Report. And she too knows the creative director of GQ.

Men’s suits are back, writes Nicole Ford in Sexbuzz.Com (“the ultimate men’s entertainment magazine”).

Dressing down loses appeal as men suit up at the office, writes Tenisha Mercer of The Detroit News.

Isn’t that cute? It’s like finding out where fashionable colors come from.

I like Paul Graham’s conclusion—not because it’s flattering to bloggers, but because it addresses a question that’s bugged me since I was a little kid: Why is the tone of so much magazine and newspaper writing as unnatural as silicone breast implants on a snake?

I was talking recently to a friend who works for a big newspaper. He thought the print media were in serious trouble, and that they were still mostly in denial about it. “They think the decline is cyclic,” he said. “Actually it’s structural.”

In other words, the readers are leaving, and they’re not coming back.

Why? I think the main reason is that the writing online is more honest. Imagine how incongruous the New York Times article about suits would sound if you read it in a blog:

The urge to look corporate—sleek, commanding, prudent, yet with just a touch of hubris on your well-cut sleeve—is an unexpected development in a time of business disgrace.

The problem with this article is not just that it originated in a PR firm. The whole tone is bogus. This is the tone of someone writing down to their audience.

Whatever its flaws, the writing you find online is authentic. It’s not mystery meat cooked up out of scraps of pitch letters and press releases, and pressed into molds of zippy journalese. It’s people writing what they think.

I didn’t realize, till there was an alternative, just how artificial most of the writing in the mainstream media was.

Okay, I didn’t say he answered the question, just addressed it.

He ends with a link to a lame article in the PRSA newsletter about how to pitch the woo to weblogs. I’ll add a further link to another article on the same subject.

I win! I found a lamer article than he did:

Never, ever use the words, “I think your readers would be interested in this story.” To a large extent, bloggers are more interested in a point of view or the power of an idea than they are “readers.”

I think we’re safe, for a while at any rate.

Comments on The secret engines of the world:
#1 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 02:44 PM:

Check the number of articles whose lede was to the effect of "We don't call them vanity presses any more" touting the great new Print On Demand vanity presses. There were all over the place for a while. Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, PC Magazine.

My guess is that iUniverse, which kept getting mentioned as the New Great Thing, had paid for a PR blitz.

#2 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 03:07 PM:

Graham's site is full of great essays. I recommend going there with a couple of hours to kill.

#3 ::: Anton P. Nym (aka Steve) ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 03:13 PM:

Only minutes ago I posted a complaint about lazy reporting/editing on my blog... it is a systemic problem, caused by too much demand (column inches, screen time, the pressure to post) and too little skilled labour to supply it.

We actually need more journalists... or at least more writers who research their material properly and more editors to keep 'em honest. (Blogging's no substitute for that, any more than over-the-fence gossip is a substitute for news.)

#4 ::: RooK ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 03:57 PM:

I suppose that I had always assumed that newspapers had developed their original popularity because people wanted something more substantial (read "substantiated") than just over-the-fence gossip. Does anyone here know what the standards for verification were for dissemination over the ages? I'd look into it myself, but, well, you know...

#5 ::: Apopheniac ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 04:07 PM:

This all fits well with the complaints about the relationship between the press and the Bush White House during the first phases of the war, and the final phases of the election, i.e., the White House press corps became a dissemination service for presidential press releases. The lazy journalist problem isn't just limited to reporting about cultural "trends." Propaganda via laziness?

#6 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 04:15 PM:

I don't mind a certain amount of propaganda and over-the-top hucksterism. Life wouldn't have so much zing without barkers and flacks. We just need to keep it in perspective. Posing with a giant weenie is one thing. Voting for a giant weenie is another.

#7 ::: jrochest ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 04:38 PM:

I'm not sure, though, how safe bloggers are: since blogs are completely anonymous, either free or cheap, and best when done by a group of writers, what's to stop a PR flack, or someone who wants to become a PR flack, from 'blogging' about, oh, I dunno, suits? or shoes? or handbags?

And I won't link to any of them but there are dozens of 'shoe blogs' and 'handbag blogs' out there, each entry a promo for a specific product.

#8 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 04:41 PM:

On "fashionable colors"- my wife is an ink chemist. At one point she quoted me something: 90% of clothing sold is in about five colors. I remember black, white, navy, and red; I might be forgetting one or two.

All those racks and racks of "the new colors?" They make up 10% of everyone's wardrobe.

There are other ways that the Vast Clothing Conspiracy totally fails when faced with the actual consumer. There was a dismal Christmas a year or two ago in the VCC because the fashion industry rolled out all this new stuff. . . and nobody wanted it. I only know this because I made one of my many investment mistakes, so I was following the retail clothing industry and they TANKED.

As for "Suits being back in style?" Never going to happen as long as suits look stupid without ties. And they do.

#9 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 05:05 PM:

My no-tie solution is to skip the jacket and wear a colourful shirt. That seems to work well, at least to me.

#10 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 05:59 PM:

If you want a suit with no tie that doesn't look stupid, the Chinese round collar jackets -- especially in silk brocade -- look spiffy.

Someone I know who worked at a newspaper reported that the columns -- the thing one might naively regard as the content -- were called 'fill'; the main point of the exercise being to push ads under noses.

Even more generally, you get what you reward. It takes only tiny -- as in, 1% is lots -- of statistical difference over generational time to completely get rid of the 99% version. This is what's been happening to aggressive reporting in Anglo-Nor Am for the last 60 years, minimum.

It's tough, it's expensive, the payoff odds are terrible, and it annoys powerful people who hold long term grudges and have a dubious respect for the law.

Plus, of course, every force evolves a form -- the desire of power to have people think as they ought always does evolve a form. (Social change more or less requires developing an un-dominated communications channel with broad reach.)

#11 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 06:06 PM:

Press standards: A few months ago I had a letter printed in the local newspaper. Under a blatantly false name. I used an email account I use for some net-game stuff, named for the character.

And it wasn't a name that was obvious only if you read the same books -- it wasn't something like R. Cheyenne Avalon.

The annoying thing is that the newpaper never seems to date a story. It's a weekly paper, and it mentions the day of the week, but I know some stuff they report happened three or four weeks before the story was printed.

#12 ::: sdn ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 06:13 PM:

i love you, teresa. you should have a title like "debunker of myths, investigator of bullshit."

if one reads enough fashion magazines over a period of time (as i did in my teens), one realizes that trends are completely false, utter bullshit.

style over fashion any day, i say.

p.s. nehru collared suits???

#13 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 07:05 PM:

Sandy: As for "Suits being back in style?" Never going to happen as long as suits look stupid without ties. And they do.

Not quite true. A suit with a tie-compatible collared shirt and no tie looks unfinished. But, if you substitute a shirt that obviously can't take a tie, such as a nice turtleneck, mock-turtleneck or non-undershirt T-shirt, or even a casual collared shirt, a suit can really work. As long as it's a good suit.

#14 ::: scapegoat ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 07:08 PM:

There is something very similar, though not quite as treacherous, that occurs in the writing of the background information of a PhD disertation.

#15 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 07:18 PM:

I think people in hot parts of the US, like Virginia summers, should take their clothing cues from hot-weather cultures. So men could wear guayabera and other "formal" shirts instead of a suit & tie.

#16 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 07:36 PM:

Or at least, Marilee, we could bring back the real "ice cream" suit, and no polyester this time.

#17 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 07:43 PM:

Ah, men in white linen suits and women in long gauzy dresses and wide-brimmed hats. Takes me back to my youth.

#18 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 09:49 PM:

Can someone let me know when yellow with orange polka dots, curly blue hair, a round red nose, and shoes that extend out an extra six inches are back in? Someday, my time will come...

#19 ::: James Kew ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 10:50 PM:

I love the URL of the fusionbrand article Teresa links to: it ends with nbsp_nbspnbsp_n.html.

#20 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 11:02 PM:

Greg, didn't you get the memo? That's the Making Light uniform of the day. There'll be an inspection at 0800 Monday morning. That's with the Service Dress Red Twirling Bowtie and miniature cream pies, by the way.

#21 ::: Lia Pas ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2005, 11:07 PM:

The PM of Japan is trying to create a more casual atmosphere, though he's not having a lot of success yet. My workplace is Japan is still all about the tie (with short-sleeved dress shirt). ew.

Seems the salarymen are in for a fashion crisis. More here.

#22 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 01:58 AM:

"So men could wear guayabera and other "formal" shirts instead of a suit & tie."

Aloha attire is the norm out here, except for a) lawyers when appearing in court and b) male newsreaders. I have no idea why newspeople think they need to wear suits four days a week (Friday is Aloha Friday, so even the newspeople realize the benefit) unless they're all doing audition tapes for mainland stations. That isn't unlikely; most of our stations hire youngsters straight out of the U and most of them leave within a couple of years.

#23 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 03:21 AM:

If you, like me, are asking yourself, "What the heck if a guayabera shirt"?

It's a nice-looking shirt. If I cared more about presenting a professional appearance, and if I worked in an office, I'd wear it into the office with dress pants and dress shoes on a warm day.

#24 ::: Guy Matthews ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 03:37 AM:

... So.. Who all has actually read through that first pitching to Bloggers article? If you haven't take a look, there are a few gems of deeply offensive stupidity in there. The one that trully slays me is this:

"Many of them still consider their sites to be personal forums for their views and perspectives, and are wary of corporate or PR interference."

Just where the HELL do they get off implying that OUR blogs somehow AREN'T our personal forums?? Quick review of elements relative to my blog (which I won't link cos it really is total tripe :P) that MAY suggest otherwise...

-My name is plastered all over it.
-The server it's on cost me a couple grand and was hand-built by yours trully.
-I pay an unspeakable amount per month for colocation and bandwidth.
-I own more than half the domains on the server including of course the one the blog is under. Those have my name and address plastered all over them as well.

That there isn't just my PERSONAL FORUM, it's my property, an extension of my home onto the net, and it's been payed for in cash, blood and sweat!

Unsurprisingly, neither Trufelman or Goldberg have their e-mail address in easy sight anywhere. I wouldn't mind giving those two a piece of my mind that's for sure.

Meantime, and mind you this is just to be fascetious since no one actually reads my particular corner of the net, I'm going to be adding a disclaimer stating any individuals not here strictly on personal business are unwelcome and risk being sued for unlawful consumption of system resources. Might be a move worth considering for y'all who DO have a readership and might be actual targets for that sort of nonsense.

#25 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 05:21 AM:

Guy, while I appreciate the sentiments of you're final graf, I must say they're, well, silly.

I certainly don't participate in online forums "strictly on personal business." I'm a journalist who covers technology and the computer industry, I get plenty of story ideas from my participation in blogging and online sf fandom. And anyone who can derive professional or business advantage from my online activity is welcome to it.

The key difference between me and a PR person who views a blogosphere soley as a machine for producing publicity for his clients — is that I don't just consume the resources for my own profit. I participate. I don't have a meter attached to computer, assessing the financial cost and return-on-investment of every keystroke and mouse movement. I read. I think. I respond. I make ze jokes. I'm certainly not here at 2:21 am on a Saturday morning because I'm working, I'm here because I'm not tired and don't want to try to sleep and figured I might as well spend some time with friends while I'm awake.

BTW, I forwarded this link to a friend of mine who does PR, and urged him to participate. He didn't. Probably smart of him. :)

One statistic I like to throw out there during discussions of the relationship between journalists and PR people: I get 50 pitches from PR people every day. That's right: Fifty. Five-oh. No exaggeration. The overwhelming majority of them are e-mail, but I get a few phone calls every day as well. (Most of the phone calls start out, "I'm just following up on the e-mail I sent... " The overwhelming majority of PR people are not very bright.)

I ignore pretty much all of them. The ones I do respond to, it's because they've persisted and I have to actually say "no" to them, rather than simply ignore them, or else they might start complaining to people who can make trouble for me.

Then again, I've reached a stage in my career where I don't have a quota of articles to turn out. I write what I find interesting, and don't write a lot. Pretty soon, I'll be writing a lot less.

But that wasn't always the case. For most of my career, I had to write three to five articles every week. In late 2002, near the trough of the economic downturn in the tech industry, I took a gig where I had to write one article and four news briefs every day. You can bet I loved PR people back then, they were my best buds and homeys.

#26 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 07:27 AM:

That second PR article reminds me: whatever happened to Gannon/Guckert?

There was a passing mention on NPR that the reason we had so much coverage of the Pope's funeral was the Vatican supplied ready-to-broadcast footage.

#27 ::: S. Gorton ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 10:22 AM:

The Guckert/Gannon is reinventing himself as a blogger, and seems to crop up as a guest on right-wing shouting head shows. As of this writing, his most recent entry wraps a Cicero quote about treason around Senator Durbin, and that's all he felt compelled to say.

The Secret Service has announced there's no story here, without explaining any of the strangeness or discrepancies involved in Gannon's access or access logs.

#28 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 11:15 AM:

In my experience, neither the typical American nor the typical academic understand the crucial difference between:

(1) Advertising
(2) Marketing
(3) Public Relations.

Let's give tentative partial definitions of each:

(1) Advertising: attempting to influence the buying behavior of your customers or clients by providing a persuasive selling message about your products and/or services. Includes signage, newspapers, pay-per-click.

(2) Marketing: "Marketing is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, services, organizations, and events to create and maintain relationships that will satisfy individual and organizational objectives."
[Contemporary Marketing Wired, Boone and Kurtz, Dryden Press, 1998]

(3) Public Relations: ongoing activities to ensure the company has a strong public image. Public relations activities include helping the public to understand the company and its products. Often, public relations are conducted through the media, that is, newspapers, television, magazines, etc. Public relations is often considered as one of the primary activities included in promotions.

The following example may help to make the above five concepts more clear. I recently read that the story comes from the Reader's Digest, a quote found in "Promoting Issues and Ideas" by M. Booth and Associates, Inc. (Thanks to Jennifer M. Seher, participant in the CONSULTANTS@CHARITYCHANNEL.COM on-line discussion group.)

"... if the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying 'Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday', that's advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that's promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor's flower bed, that's publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it, that's public relations." If the town's citizens go the circus, you show them the many entertainment booths, explain how much fun they'll have spending money at the booths, answer their questions and ultimately, they spend a lot at the circus, that's sales.

#29 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 12:05 PM:

Bring back the formal dress sarong!

#30 ::: Anton P. Nym (aka Steve) ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 03:01 PM:

Bring back the formal dress sarong!

Heck no! I've got too much to hide. (Dratted beer... ooooh, I can't stay mad at you, my sweet. [sfx: bottle opening, carbonation hiss])

#31 ::: Ian Myles Slater ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 04:43 PM:

It gets worse: stern policies about PR that turn out to be PR themselves.

The Los Angeles Times has (or had) a policy about not running news stories saying that it has been announced that such and such an event of public interest will take place on such and such a date, etc. (Say, "Clergy and Laity United Against Oppression are to hold a vigil at City Hall.") That would be just printing the press release. Not acceptable journalistic practice. (And it competes with advertising, not that most of the groups could afford it.)

However, I know from trustworthy participants in such events that the Times WILL run the press release as a news story after the fact, without bothering to check what actually happened, who actually attended, or much else. Beyond confirming that something of that nature took place at the right date, time, and location.

Which makes it news, even if no one knew about while it was going on, and it had no direct impact on anything until the story ran in a major newspaper.

They've wound up attributing statements and even entire speeches, to the wrong people.

In one case, at least, the original release had warned that any or all of the clergy scheduled to speak might have to cancel, due to illnesses or deaths in their congregations, and other unpredictable professional duties. (Which you might think is self-evident, but isn't.)

The tentative list was the one reported as news. The "main speaker" got a lot of complaints about the statement he didn't deliver, didn't endorse, and hadn't been there to hear, or read in the hand-out to the reporter(s) who showed up (possibly after the fact).

I assume that this is common, but I happen to know the L.A. Times local coverage more directly.

#32 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 06:57 PM:

Mitch, I think you lost the guayabera link. Try this.

And I finally remembered the name of the Filipino variety: Barong Tagalog.

#33 ::: Andrew Gray ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 07:40 PM:

Ian: Heck, if they check the event took place then the LA Times is doing better than most newspapers. The number of times I've seen mention of a story about an event that was cancelled - in one delightful case, a mention of a theatre review that had been written without checking the play had actually gone ahead that night...

#34 ::: Barry Ragin ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 07:48 PM:

Ian, I think Mitch Albom may be able to comment on the phenomena you describe.

#35 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 08:11 PM:

I believe the usual joke explanation goes like this:

You see a gorgeous girl at a party. You approach her and say, "I'm fantastic in bed." That's direct marketing.

You're at a party with a bunch of friends and see a gorgeous girl. One of your friends approaches her, points at you and says, "He's fantastic in bed." That's advertising.

You see a gorgeous girl at a party. You approach her and get her telephone number. The next day you call and say, "Hi, I'm fantastic in bed. That's telemarketing.

You leave cards that say "so and so is good in bed" on various surfaces and carry a sandwhich board saying "so and so is good in bed". That's guerilla marketting.

You tell a woman that you're good in bed, and she tells two friends who tells two friends who tells two friends. That's viral advertising.

You're at a party and see a gorgeous girl.You get up and straighten your tie, you walk up to her and pour her a drink. You open the door for her, pick up her bag after she drops it, offer her a ride, and then say, "By the way, I'm fantastic in bed".
That's public relations.

You keep doing all the above and one day, you're at a party and see a gorgeous girl. She walks up to you and says, "I hear you're fantastic in bed." That's brand recognition.

You're at a party and everyone there already heard that you're good in bed and they're anxious to meet you. That's network marketing.

You're at a party and see a gorgeous girl. You talk him into going home with your friend. That's a Sales Rep.

Your friend can't satisfy her so he calls you. That's tech support.

You're on your way to a party when you realize that there could be gorgeous girls in all these houses you're passing. So you climb onto the roof of one situated toward the center and shout at the top of your lungs, "I'm fantastic in bed!" That's spam.

You hear about guys like this but never meet one. That's False Advertising.

#36 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 08:19 PM:
You're on your way to a party when you realize that there could be gorgeous girls in all these houses you're passing. So you climb onto the roof of one situated toward the center and shout at the top of your lungs, "I'm fantastic in bed!" That's spam.

The way I heard it, you run up the door of every house, pound on it, and when someone opens the door, regardless of who it is, you hand them a photo of your prick. That's spam.

(Of course, those of us who are genuinely good in bed don't need to advertise....)

#37 ::: Georgiana ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 09:17 PM:

What does this count as besides vile?

Ages ago I signed up with Harris polls for a class I was taking. I continue to complete their polls because I am interested in the way they ask the questions.

I got a notice a few weeks ago that they wanted a teenager in my household to take part in a poll regarding important health topics for children and they wanted the participant to be between the ages of 13 and 17. My son Cullen (15) and I did the poll together, him reading over my shoulder and me typing. It wasn't at all what we expected and in fact it wasn't a poll. It was advertising? Illegal advertising? Propaganda? I don't know.

After asking some demographic questions and whether Cul was taking the poll by himself or if there were parents around it asked this:

Now, we would like to ask you a few questions about a new cigarette called Marlboro UltraSmooth FilterSelect, which has recently been introduced in the US. Marlboro UltraSmooth FilterSelect features a new carbon filter that lets the flavor through for a filtered, smooth taste.

Based on this brief description, how likely are you to smoke Marlboro UltraSmooth FilterSelect cigarettes in the next six months?

And then it went on with a series of questions about how safe these cigarettes sounded and how likely was he to smoke them and what did he think each of the buzz words meant. But it was worse than that, it was sneaky and manipulative, like the whole purpose was to convince these kids that these cigarettes are great and they should all start puffing away.

Take these two questions for example, which come right after each other:

Do you think that this product has been reviewed and evaluated for safety by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before they were being sold to consumers?

If you knew that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had reviewed and approved this product as a 'reduced risk tobacco product,' how would it affect your interest, if at all?

Doesn't that give you the impression that the FDA has given them the okay? How is this poll legal? It's certainly not ethical. And as for important health topics, this was the only topic that had anything to do with health. Here is a new cigarette, how does it sound to you? Isnít it safe? Don't you want to smoke it?

How about this:

Which one is closer to your opinion?

An UltraSmooth cigarette will deliver a richer, more satisfying smoke and taste experience than other cigarettes.

An UltraSmooth cigarette will deliver a less harsh and less hazardous smoke than other cigarettes.

Not sure

That's not a real poll question!!! That's trying to figure out which language is more effective for advertising, something that Harris poll has done many, many times in the past but this time they're aiming at a group protected by the law. Also, notice there is no place for "I think all cigarettes will kill me and I will never smoke them," which is what Cullen wanted to say.

We did this "poll" nearly a month ago and it still makes me so angry I think my head might explode.

#38 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 09:41 PM:

Ian and everybody, Robert Anton Wilson said that news reports of any event he'd been present for never matched what registered to his nervous system. Now, this might be a reflection on the state of RAW's nervous system, or it might be saying something about the media.

So, would anyone care to talk about how much of what they've seen in the news matched what they experienced?

#39 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 09:57 PM:


Vile and a half. Makes me want to send "polls" to children of the Harris pollers asking equally biased questions about New Improved Crack and Tasty Tar Heroin.

Nancy Lebovitz:

I've commented, a year or so ago, about how I was in the middle of the "civil unrest" a.k.a. the Rodney King Riots, and how what I saw was incongruent with the "black versus white" tales told by The Media.

I've also seen a riot two decades earlier, with LAPD goons clubbing a father as he tried to protect his children at a picnic, the event never reported in the local papers.

I've been in peace marches that weren't covered, and others that were distorted out of recognition.

OTOH, when I ran the L.A. branch of the largest Pro-Space rally ever, it was well-covered by local TV and newspapers.

When I was arrested at a Town Council meeting where I was present as both elected official and as a card-carrying member of the press, for asking polite questions about marked bills from narcotics sting operations dug up from the lawn of the Chairman of the Town Council, three newspapers covered the event fairly.

Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don't. There was no "liberal bias" that I could see. Just ignorance, spin control, and arbitrary and capricious decisions on what stories to run.

That's off the top of my head, but if I thought longer, I'd probably just have more anecdotes on each side.

#40 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 10:40 PM:

I used to be a PR Flack. More to the point, I was the one who developed media contacts, helped write press releases, helped develop media kits, etc. for a primarily business-to-business full-service marketing agency. The main management (all hard core advertising people) of the agency did not get the point Jonathan was making, that PR CAN be an effective adjunct to advertising, they just thought it was a nice plum to tell new business prospects, "WE have a real PR department, manned by PRSA/IABC members...' and not much more. A way to prove they were a Full Service Marketing Company. And the manager of department that actually did all the media sales hated our guts, she regarded PR as a direct competitor to her services.

One really good vice president left in frustration, before I left they had a guy with low morals and a less than passing understanding of how to place ads. But that's another story, and it was another time and place.

#41 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 10:46 PM:

Nancy, are we talking about news reporting on Worldcon, or public events in general?

And on the advertising front:

"This person has physical attraction. This is not an offer to jump you nor to be jumped by you. This offer is made only by the Prospectus. All such transactions have risks. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the woman is, due to unforeseen circumstances, left ex-dividend. From time to time there may be riders, hidden costs, or a persistent itch; if this continues, call your broker. Hey, it's life in New York: what kind of company do you keep?"

#42 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 11:15 PM:

John, I'm asking about public events in general.

#43 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 11:32 PM:

I've been present for a number of events that made the national news.

None of the reporting matched my observations either.

#44 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 11:44 PM:

Georgiana -- parts of this sound like a "push poll", an IMO-unethical form of PR that's become widespread enough to have a commonly-known name. Other parts of it are just test marketing, which can be annoying but usually does not have such an unethical intent. Or make that "unlawful intent" -- IIRC there was a deal, between this administration and the tobacco companies, that avoided an outright ban on tobacco advertising in return for the manufacturers pulling all ads aimed at kids (e.g. "Joe Camel"); IMO your case is close to if not over the edge, and you should turn some of your anger into finding someone to report it to as a violation.

#45 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2005, 11:45 PM:

Nancy, that was a joke -- I've seen some good reporting on functions I've attended, and I've seen some bad, but I've never seen anything so consistently, spectacularly, Linear-A-in-a-blender bad as local coverage of Worldcons. (The one honorable exception has been The Economist.) Some of this is inherent in TV -- very little of what most of us attend Worldcon for can be encapsulated in fifty seconds of tape, and the crew wants an image that is striking and recognizable to the mass audience, like, say, Jar Jar going into the men's room. That doesn't let the papers off the hook . . . but enough of this; there's a panel in five minutes in Gehenna B on "Image and Emblem in Single-Malt Scotch."

#46 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 12:01 AM:

John M. Ford:

Or, compressed to a headline:


#47 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 02:00 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz asks:

So, would anyone care to talk about how much of what they've seen in the news matched what they experienced?

In my circle, one of my friends' mom formulated it as an axiom along these lines:
"Anytime that you have personal knowledge of a news event, you will notice that the media coverage will misrepresent some important aspect of what actually happened. The reporting will always be wrong, in major or minor ways. And you can freely extrapolate from stories you have personal knowledge of, to stories you don't, and safely assume that those stories are also somehow distorted."

For a couple of decades now I've been trying to distill that down to a pithier formulation, but it's defeated me.

#48 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 03:06 AM:

OK, here's my short form:

Everyone misremembers details of events, but the Press publishes.

#49 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 03:40 AM:

Couldn't some of the wrongness be attributed to the reporter's attempt to distill a number of accounts of "what happened" into a single coherant narrative? With a beginning, middle and end? Lots of events don't seem to start anywhere in particular, or go anywhere, or end for any reason other than the sun set and everyone went home, to someone who isn't a fan, or in the know. So the reporter might ask around, key on the bits that best fit into a story form, and writes it up for sense rather than objective truth.

(I did polling for a while some years ago, for three or four different outfits. On both tobacco and alcohol we were instructed to never, ever, poll anyone underage. Sounds like the regulations may have ever so quietly loosened.)

#50 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 03:44 AM:

Participants present properly, Press publishes poorly?

#51 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 04:36 AM:


Full story: Page D29

#52 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 05:28 AM:

Hey Lia,
I'm in Japan too, in Shin Matsudo. Where are you?

#53 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 07:01 AM:

Actually, I have seen good press coverage of a Worldcon--I'm pretty sure it was the local paper describing the San Diego Worldcon. No lame jokes, though I had a small nitpick about filk (details forgotten.)

I can't remember whether it was actual coverage or "a worldcon is coming to town, here's what they're like".

It was a worldcon that the Chamber of Commerce really wanted, and there may be some connection.

#54 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 07:35 AM:

I don't recall there being a San Diego Worldcon -- perhaps you mean the NASFiC?

#55 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:23 AM:

Brainfart time--I'm pretty sure I was thinking of ConJose.

#56 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:34 AM:

Pericat has at least part of why even good press reports may not match your experience of the same event: consider how often you and one or more people you know were at the same event and remember things differently. Including "events" that consist of an important conversation between you and one other person, which you remember differently after the fact.

Consider, also, that we notice the discrepancies: if the article says that A, B, C, D, E happened, and person F said G and H, and you remember A, C, D, E, and Q, and person F saying G and Z, where Z was really annoying, you're likely to tell your friends "But they didn't mention Q, and where on earth did they get the idea that he said F rather than Z?" And it's entirely possible that the person actually said F, G, and Z.

#57 ::: Ian Myles Slater ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:36 AM:


The LA Times has been serious about journalistic conduct for years. They've run week-long series on the front page about things like the lax way best-seller lists (including their own) were compiled, and reporters (also including their own) accepting freebies from industry associations.

No one is perfect. There was a big internal scandal, reported to the public, when it turned out financial interest in a major new sports venue had influenced the decision to publish a "news" supplement about the complex. But in a lot of places, that would have been business as usual.

So it was annoying (although not deeply surprising) to find that their "we are scrupulous about reporting only events that have actually happened" didn't, in practice, prohibit re-writing the press releases as a news story.

It seems to have gotten worse since the chain of which they were the flagship was absorbed by another company.


I'm used to news coverage getting it wrong (anyone can watch most summaries of press conferences and speeches and spot the differences between the event and the coverage). Sometimes just human weakness, sometimes open bias.

But the case I cited was, given the "Rainbow Coalition" appearance of the group, pretty good evidence that the reporter wasn't there, or hadn't been paying attention. Or really couldn't tell black from white, Anglo from Hispanic, or a rabbi from a Catholic priest from a Baptist minister. Which, I suppose, would be nice in a utopian sort of way....

They got what was announced right, although not who said what. Of course, there was a printed version of the prepared statement available at the event.

#58 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 02:04 PM:

Good grief. I bow to Mr. Ford's superb headline writing.

#59 ::: Lia Pas ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 06:00 PM:

Hey Sean,

I'm in Kitakyushu - way south of you. Only for another month though, so I'll miss the horrible heat and humidity of August. But I'm sure the men in my office will still be wearing their ties...

#60 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 06:15 PM:

I've said it before, but: the best press coverage of a Worldcon I ever read was the Boston Gay Community News on Noreascon II, in 1980.

They completely got it. I understand their reporter bonded instantly with the concom press-relations people: "Oh, right, it's just like the way every time we have a demonstration, the TV cameras go straight for the most outrageous drag queen they can find."

#61 ::: Damien Neil ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 07:06 PM:

Speaking of the only honorable exception being The Economist...

I've read a lot of articles purporting to summarize technical issues that I deal with for the layman. Almost invariably, the best I can say is, "Well, that wasn't *completely* wrong."

The single exception has been The Economist. In particular, I remember an article they ran summarizing current issues in computer technology that not only contained no inaccuracies that I could note, but was actually informative in a useful way.

#62 ::: Jennifer Stevenson ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 09:26 AM:

To the newspaper reportage bias question, my father was a newspaper editor at the Chicago Tribune for decades. He went into management-level meetings daily where staff were told what the Stories of the Day would be, where they would appear in the paper (front page above the fold, below the fold, page two, "bury it"), and what slant was required by management. They were also told what would NOT be covered, regardless of how much material came in. This happened up through the late 1970s.

Extrapolate from there.

IMO traditional news sources have gradually become completely corrupted in the past seven or eight years. Some kind of pressure is being applied, not just around elections or war efforts but continually, to make it so.

I'm not totally sure that this pressure is corporate, i.e. pressure from the ownership. It didn't escape my notice that the person who received anthrax who seemed actually to be the chosen target was a newspaper editor. Because of the printer's ink in my bloodlines I attend a goodly number of public and private newsie functions in Chicago. The atmosphere at these functions can be described briefly as "scared."

#63 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 10:52 AM:

Nothing really to say, just that one of the reasons why the "suit is back" articles always appear in September is that is when Fashion Week takes place in NYC and hundreds of fashion-oriented articles and "articles" swarm the press at that time.

Things I cannot find in local stores, fashion-wise: summer dresses with sleeves (in summer, I don't want to wear a t-shirt or any more layering than necessary, but I cannot wear things with spaghetti straps) and petticoats to wear under this year's wonderful skirts. Slips just don't do it.

Also on the fashion-front, I recently read an article that said that this fall will see the end of the bright colors of the last year and a half and a return to black, blue, and brown as standards in women's cothing. According to the piece, people "didn't buy" the bright colors. Gee, I wonder who all those people are who I keep seeing in pink and turquoise and all the rest? According to this pieces, stores reportedly are stocking only dark colors for fall.

BTW, my father used to be in PR. He'd come home and laugh about things like getting articles written on the great new material his employer was using for stereo cabinets: wood!

#64 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 11:03 AM:

Melissa Singer:

Wood for stereo cabinets? Who'd have thunk it? Why, if that goes on, they'll be making violins and pianos out of it.

Seriously, I enjoyed your posting, for its central fact on suit story timing (ahhhh, the fashion district...) and on the sense of irony of good people in PR such as your father.

Jennifer Stevenson:

"... traditional news sources have gradually become completely corrupted in the past seven or eight years." What happened 7 to 8 years ago to change things? Or has it been continuous erosion, until a qualitative change became apparent?

#65 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 08:27 PM:

Melissa -- was it real wood? If so it was news; the last couple of times I shopped (admittedly 25-30 years ago) everything was particleboard.

#66 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2005, 09:50 AM:

CHip: this was back in the late 60s or early 70s, so it may have been actual wood. Or not.

I'm grateful to dad--he taught me how to parse press releases, pseudo-articles, and commercials at an early age, skills I am trying to pass on to my daughter.

#67 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2005, 02:31 PM:

Jennifer Stevenson: To the newspaper reportage bias question, my father was a newspaper editor at the Chicago Tribune for decades. He went into management-level meetings daily where staff were told what the Stories of the Day would be, where they would appear in the paper (front page above the fold, below the fold, page two, "bury it"), and what slant was required by management. They were also told what would NOT be covered, regardless of how much material came in. This happened up through the late 1970s.

My goodness, that sounds sinister the way you phrase it. And I can make it even more sinister when I say those sorts of meetings go on at every newspaper, magazine, broadcast journalism outlet, and news webzine in the country. Probably the world. They happen less frequently at periodicals that publish less frequenty, but they happen regularly.

I've participated in thousands of those meetings myself.

Generally speaking, the criteria use for judgment are which stories will be most interesting to the readers. That is to say, which stories will sell more papers.

Certainly, there the news media are deeply flawed, but the daily news meetings are not part of the problem. The layout of the paper, and what stories get into the paper, has to be decided somehow. It's decided by the editors getting together in a meeting and hashing it out. How else would you suggest doing it?

#68 ::: Georgiana ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2005, 09:03 PM:

Thank you JVP and CHip. I took your advice, CHip and I tracked down Eliot Spitzer, the AG of NY and sent him some email today asking if he can do anything or if he knows what I should do.

I'm in Maryland so out of his jurisdiction but it happened online and he seems very concerned tobacco adverts aimed at kids so I'm hoping something will come of it.

#69 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 11:17 AM:

'According to the piece, people "didn't buy" the bright colors. Gee, I wonder who all those people are who I keep seeing in pink and turquoise and all the rest? According to this pieces, stores reportedly are stocking only dark colors for fall. '

Well, assuming Helen's 10% figure is right for trendy colors. . . and the bright colors only sold to 5% of the people:

You'll still notice all the bright colors. That's what bright colors are FOR. And 5% bright colors is probably enough to leave a disproportionate impression.

And "half the expected sales" would be a real problem in retail. . .

#70 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 01:24 PM:

Apparently, I'm one of the 5%. I'm currently wearing a bright turquoise top and -- ta da! -- turquoise shoes. (And white jeans; couldn't find any in the right shade of turquoise.)

#71 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 06:50 PM:

I have on bright red cotton gauze pants and a bright red cotton gauze top printed with black hibiscus blossoms & leaves. Grey slippers, though, I can't get XL Dearfoam booties in really good colors.

#72 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2005, 11:02 PM:

And here's an example right here, in an article about new ways of marketing a novel (which just happens to be released tomorrow.)

This entry has soured me on newspapers a bit.

#73 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2005, 03:25 PM:

The musical press release heard by billions of the normally selfishish humans Dept.

Helping In A Selfish World: Fishing For Answers To The Co-operation Question

Hamilton, ON. July 12, 2005 -- Billions of people tuned into recent Live 8 concert broadcasts, some just for the music, others to support the altruistic cause spearheaded by former Boomtown Rat, Sir Bob Geldof. In today's rat-race climate, what makes some of us look out for each other, while others look out for themselves?

According to evolutionary theory, natural selection has designed individuals to behave selfishishly [sic]; selfish individuals are likely to end up with more resources and therefore more offspring. But many species (including humans, some rock musicians, politicians, and everyday citizens among them) do co-operate.

Traditionally, scientists have explained the evolution of co-operation using the idea of kin selection...

#74 ::: Bob ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2005, 07:44 PM:

Foolish stuff. Suits are back - sales of suits and ties are soaring. Sorry, wake up. The "wise guy" author referred to here has been debunking this for the past few years - well, reality has caight up with him. The casual craze is dead. Suits are back.

Like it or not.....

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