So… former Seattle Times senior political reporter David Postman, perhaps the most respected and influential political journalistic in the state not too long ago, a man who once took umbrage at my relentless (and sometimes mean-spirited) critique of his profession, and who now pays the bills as a spokesman for Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., has an article up on Crosscut of all places, criticizing the never-for-profit opinion and sorta-news site for running misleading and “demonstrably false” articles about the Mercer Mess, and of course, his employer’s role in it.
Sorry about the run-on sentence, but… that’s just plain weird.
At the time Postman announced his change of careers, I quipped that if many more journalists left the profession to pursue jobs in media relations, pretty soon there wouldn’t be any media left to relate to, so it doesn’t really surprise me to see the PR/journalism ecosystem collapse to the point where PR flacks, once confined to the sphere of influencing journalists, are now directly posting newsish pieces to newsish sites in an effort to get their bosses’ message out. Sure, he and the Crosscut editors repeatedly disclaim Postman’s obvious conflict of interest, so in some ways, it’s not all that much different from a more traditional guest column or a letter to the editor, but promoted out there on the Crosscut home page with the rest of their journalistish headlines, it just doesn’t feel like a guest column or a letter to the editor. It feels, like I said, weird. I mean, this is David Postman, for chrissakes.
Not that I’m all that sure that there is anything ethically wrong with the piece, disclaimed as such, or even all that different from what I do here at HA (which I once jokingly described as a one-man, pro bono PR firm for Washington state’s progressive community). But then, unlike Crosscut, I’ve never pretended HA deserved any more inherent respect than its content merited, and I’ve certainly never enjoyed the credibility of a David Postman. And perhaps more importantly, while I congratulate Postman for wearing his bias on his sleeve and trusting readers to judge his words in that context, as I have always done, my readers have always been able to rest assured that my bias is at least my own, rather than being bought and paid for by, say, Paul Allen, while Postman’s newfound Crosscut audience… not so much. That may strike some as a subtle difference, but one which, nonetheless, gave me the willies.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Postman and Crosscut have done anything wrong, just that by giving him a byline, they’ve done something very, very different… so different journalistically, that it at the very least deserves a collective, reflective pause. Crosscut has long claimed to be an “online newspaper” (an oxymoron considering the intrinsic absence of paper, not to mention the dearth of, well, news), and with all the inherent perceptions and expectations that word implies. But at a traditional newspaper, Postman’s response would have been clearly published as a guest column under the byline of say, Paul Allen or some other Vulcan executive, or perhaps a pro-Mercer-fix public figure willing to serve as a surrogate. It may still have been ghostwritten by Postman — that’s a pretty damn common arrangement (hell, even I’ve ghostwritten a handful of Seattle Times guest columns over the years, and nobody’s been the wiser) — but it sure as hell wouldn’t have had Postman’s byline on it.
Why does that matter? Because by putting his name on the piece, Postman, widely known and rightly respected by the media and political establishment as one of our state’s best reporters, hasn’t just sold his employers his skills as a writer, he’s implicitly imbued his critique of Crosscut’s reporting with his own well-earned journalistic credibility. In this brave new world of media relations, where it is now both possible and preferable to skip the relations part entirely, and pump one’s unfiltered message straight into the media, Vulcan didn’t just buy themselves a capable spokesman or mere PR flack… with Postman, they bought themselves their very own journalist.
And that’s different… at least from the kind of media familiar to American consumers for much of the past century, and ironically, from the kind of media Postman used to vigorously defend. PR flacks have always been hired guns, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when they start directly writing our news and commentary themselves, and under their own bylines, we’re looking at an entirely different kind of gunfight.
Which may or may not be a bad thing for both the media and its consumers. It’s just that coming from Crosscut and David Postman of all people, this sort of journalistic innovation (in lieu of a less neutral word) simply struck me as awfully damn weird.