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Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

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Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

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Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

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Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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March 31, 2004

Why Karen Ryan Deserved What She Got

"Karen Ryan, you're a phony," said a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial. She's a confused phony, however, unable to comprehend why faking the role of reporter, on behalf of a government "news release," should be questioned at all. But there's something bizarre here too. Call it her state of mind.

This month, Campaign Desk (the weblog of the Columbia Journalism Review) was hitting on all cylinders when it brought forward, by its aggressive reporting and fine sense of outrage, the strange—no, outrageous— tale of one Karen Ryan, TV professional, PR flak, and Federal stooge. I have been thinking about her since she first popped up in the news, then started popping off about the unfairness of it all.

Ms. Ryan, you will easily recall, is the public relations person, owner of her own agency, who appeared in a video news release from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) praising the benefits of the new Medicare bill. A New York Times editorial called the videos “plugs for the controversial new drug program the White House is selling to elderly voters.” What got Ryan into trouble with the press, and in the press was the way she faked the standard sign off in television news by saying in earnest tones: “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”

The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, began looking at the use of taxpayer money for something akin to propaganda (which is against the law, unless Congress says it’s okay) and this is how Ryan became news. The Times account (March 15) said:

The government also prepared scripts that can be used by news anchors introducing what the administration describes as a made-for-television “story package.”

In one script, the administration suggests that anchors use this language: “In December, President Bush signed into law the first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details.”

The “reporter” then explains the benefits of the new law.

Which is helpful in understanding what the ploy was all about: verisimilitude, making it seem like real news. Campaign Desk jumped on the story, under the reasoning that the “releases” were in fact campaign ads disguised as news. Therefore the Karen Ryan story was an episode in the battle for the White House. But it is also one episode in a conflict between the White House and the press that is not unfolding along traditional lines. It’s going outside those lines to take in deeper convictions and new ideas. As Ken Auletta reported in the New Yorker (Jan. 19, 2004) every modern president has tried to control or route around the press; and each has complained about unfair coverage.

What seems new with the Bush White House is the unusual skill that it has shown in keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda. And for perhaps the first time the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders—pleaders for more access and better headlines—as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.

“What seems new…” is further context for the Ryan affair: a calculated contempt for the press, a kind of percentage play, expressed more and more boldly, and joined to a perception (which may be accurate) that the press has lost a lot of its power in Washington. I wrote about an an earlier incident at PressThink: John Aschcroft granting interviews only to TV reporters (“not talking to print”) during his speaking tour for the Patriot Act. It’s one of many showing the same impulses at work. Indeed, last night on CNBC, David Gergen, the insider’s insider for a time in Washington, observed that the Administration’s stonewalling of the 9/11 Commission was of a piece with its treatment of the press.

After first declaring, “Bring Us The Heads of ‘Karen Ryan’ and ‘Alberto Garcia’” (another fake reporter in the videos) the Desk found Ryan, who was steamed about all this, so a reporter interviewed her: “I Feel Like Political Roadkill” read the header on that one. Zachary Roth wrote that “HHS spokesman Bill Pierce originally described Ryan to us as a ‘freelance journalist.’” This was a lie, brazen category, and it didn’t hold. Then Pierce denied permission to speak to Ryan, another calculation that didn’t work. “Ryan herself wanted to set the record straight, and she disregarded her handlers’ advice by speaking freely to Campaign Desk,” wrote Roth.

Among her explanations and rationales are these:

  • It’s not fair to call her an actress, as some accounts did, because “an actress is someone that’s playing someone they’re not.” (Hmmm.)
  • Not Karen Ryan but TV news stations bear the responsibility that some of the fake footage aired.
  • “I do feel I was singled out in this whole political mess, and I was used,” she said. “All the good things I did in my life, and now I’ve become this horrible person.” She said she was just a cog in the Bush political machine, not a player. Now she’s has become a scapegoat, “political roadkill”— a media victim when she was always careful to play by the rules.
  • Roth wrote about Ryan: “She’s not some sort of fraud, she told us, she’s a public relations professional who runs a p.r. company called Karen Ryan Group Communications — and these days she feels as if her world has collapsed around her.”

But the trouble is she is a sort of fraud, and what collapsed for her was a style of video fraudulence she happened to be good at. It may be a commonplace in politics, but if so then Ryan is just a more common type of fraud than some who find their way into the news pages. There is no rational interpretation, professional ethic, or angle of vision in which the sentence, “From Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting” looks like anything other than a simple lie.

There is no sense in which she was tricked into it, either, although tricking the eventual viewer of the “spot” was certainly on her professional mind— not as a cunning or devious thing, but as a banal and automatic thing. (Make it seem real, like you’re doing the news.) Ryan knew she was reading from a script prepared by others, not from one driven by her reporting, which of course did not exist.

Similarly, the suggested words, “Reporter Karen Ryan has the details,” part of the package she helped prepare, is a suggestion to news people that they put on the public airwaves a lie. When brought to life by a local anchor person’s voice (a home run in the video news release game) the words suggest to United States citizens than an agent of their government is actually a watchdog of their government. This is the whole point of Ryan’s impersonation of a reporter, and of the HHS man’s attempted deceit: oh, she’s a freelance journalist.

About that guy, the brazen Bill Pierce: If the spokesman thought reporters would never check, that’s the Administration’s contempt for journalism right there. If he thought they would check, but no big deal, because no one cares what the press uncovers, anyway… that would be evidence of the Administration’s greater and newer-model contempt.

Ryan is just a cog, yes, but in what? Machinery made to fool the taxpayers who paid for the video, and the journalists into whose hands it was deposited. If we take seriously her rationale (it’s up to journalists to catch this stuff, and if it gets through, hooray for our side!) then she’s a small time trickster who expects to be caught most of the time, but “wins” whenever she is not.

Crying, “but, I’m a public realations pro, not some horrible person” doesn’t help her much, because if Karen Ryan belonged to a real profession, responsible members of that fraternity would denounce her fakery, and renounce the practice of sticking simulated reporters into video clips so as to maximize the illusion of independent journalism and serious fact-finding. A real profession would be criticizing the government for abusing the practice of public relations, instead of letting the press do it all. Ryan is a professional only in the narrowest sense: she gets paid to do her thing, and she’s apparently good at it.

None of this is surprising, I admit. PR’s “just fake it” mentality has advanced so far into normal practice, all over our public culture, left, middle and right, that it usually seems pointless to object. Yet in the case of Ryan we find someone so saturated with the PR mentality, with fakery as a normal condition in life, that she cannot distinguish between criticism of her creepy practice, (“I’m Karen Ryan reporting”) and the world shouting at her: you’re such a horrible person, Karen!

I’m prepared to believe that she is a perfectly nice person— smart, competent, reliable, fun to be with, a good chum. It’s sad for her that she cannot tell the difference between what is commonly done and what it is legitimately done. But sadder is that by claiming victimhood from the camp of the perps, she seems to hope that people will… I don’t know, identify with her somehow.

But how? Could most Americans—Republicans, Democrats, Bush haters, Bush supporters, white collar, blue collar—even complete the kind of act in question, which involves lying with smooth demeanor about who you are, falsifying what you do for a living, tapping the remaining credibility of another profession to promote your own, and hoping you make it on the air to complete the government’s deception?

I doubt that most people not in the game could manage to do it without troubling over basic matters of truth. By “basic” I mean capable of being understood by a fourth-grader. Could you put your average American nurse in front of a microphone, and have her calmly read the words, “I’m Doctor Karen Ryan,” as part of an informational feature for patients, without some kind of objection arising from conscience, or self-respect? I don’t think so.

Hilariously, Ryan went out of her way to say, “I am not an actress,” when this is the one occupation that would have lent some innocence and moral sense to what she does. In fact, her line of work is a bizarre one, from a human point of view, quite apart from the contempt for press and public on which her genre, the “video news release,” is based.

Still see nothing odd here? This is a woman capable of writing, “there is something wrong when a clearly marked video or print news release is used by a news organization without questioning its source or factual basis,” and yet incapable of seeing anything wrong, at all, with, “I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” About that her exact words are: “I did nothing wrong. Nothing.” Weirdly, she describes herself in print as “that Karen Ryan who rejuvenated the veracity of the video news release.”


And according to Zachary Roth, who interviewed her, she had no problem with a government official telling the press she was a “freelance journalist,” rather than a PR person, because she used to be a journalist. “She seemed to approve of that description,” Roth told me via e-mail. “In general I got the impression during our conversation that, as a PR pro, she genuinely felt confident she could convince me she was the victim.” He added: “I couldn’t tell how far she had convinced herself of that.”

Well, me neither. Maybe you can tell. Here she is, writing boldly in Television Week:

Today’s news organizations are bombarded with information, 24-7. How it is reported or disseminated is where the journalistic debate begins. The role of the reporter or journalist is supposed to be as gatekeeper of that information, with the innate responsibility to verify its truth or dig deeper….

If this story needs a scapegoat, it’s not me. Rather, try checking the practice of journalists more interested in their own agenda as opposed to verifying facts, and remember the lessons of Journalism 101.

I’m a proud television professional and remain so to this day. However, thanks to overanxious reporters, my professional reputation has been challenged because of journalists who refused, for whatever reason-personal, political or just plain sloppy reporting-to do the basics. The American public deserves better.

This is Karen Ryan reporting.

Now a lot separates a bit player like Karen Ryan from a Karen Hughes or Karl Rove, and she is not the one to blame for the Bush Administration’s misdeeds with the press. But in a strange way I see those two—Hughes and Rove—as more normal creatures by far. They understand that as part of a political operation, they and their team will seek power (or political advantage) over truth.

Ryan, who contracted voluntarily to be part of the same team, wants credit as our faithful supplier of truth’s raw materials, as if she had never agreed to read from power’s script. When her deceptions, designed to make it through, and get on the air, made it through, and got onto the air, she turned around and said she was outraged that journalists were such lousy gatekeepers! No wonder she made the Daily Show on Comedy Central. (In fact there were screw-ups by the gatekeepers, including CNN, which distributed the piece through its Newsource service to local stations. See this from Roth on recent changes in policy at CNN.)

In the ancient definition, which comes from the Athenians, the idiot is not an unintelligent, uninformed, or unreasoning person, but someone who leads an entirely privatized existence, for whom the public world means nothing. First with her Dadaist words, “This is Karen Ryan Reporting,” and then with her explanations, which make no public sense (and do not connect to ordinary human experience or common decency) Ryan showed us that the ancient definition of idiocy is still needed from time to time.

Moral idiocy in the realm of information can be normalized, routinized, and rationalized, as with the video news release. But it should not be allowed to just flow on by, as if a regular part of politics. Campaign Desk would not permit it, and that is a very good thing.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

UPDATE, May 20, 2004: The New York Times reports: “The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said on Wednesday that the Bush administration had violated federal law by producing and disseminating television news segments that portray the new Medicare law as a boon to the elderly.”

See my second post, “Flacks Cannot Say They’re ‘Reporting’ Anymore, Says the Public Relations Society of America.” (April 20, 2004)

Alice Marshall of Technoflak on Public Relation’s Dirty Little Secret: “Why do flacks lie? Because lying is rewarded. Once you plant a lie in the press, they have a vested interest in perpetuating it.”

The American Society of Newspaper Editors sends a letter of protest to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Tom Murphy of PR Opinions, an industry weblog, comments on this post: “Our job is to communicate effectively on behalf of our clients and our employers. Some of us may believe that ‘infomercials’ are the way to go - that’s their privilege. Personally, I think we should stick to our knitting and avoid the ethical quagmire of pretending to be journalists when in fact you are a Public Relations practitioner - why be embarrased? Why pretend to be something you’re not?”

David Hawpe of the Louisville Courier Journal: Bush administration pawns off fake ‘news’ in medicare propaganda blitz.

UPDATE, April 8. On April 2, public relations professional Ken Denney, after reading this post, sent a note to Catherine Bolton, president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA):

Ms. Bolton: Jay Rosen has criticized our profession in a recent entry about the Karen Ryan matter on his blog, PressThink. He points out that while journalist organizations have sent letters of protest to the Bush Administration for the misuse of VNR material, no PR industry group has done so, which, he says, is what members of a “real profession” would do. Has there been such a protest or other official action that Mr. Rosen should be aware of? Ken Denney, Atlanta.

This was Catherine Bolton’s response to Denney (who is a PR person but not a member of PRSA):

Hello Ken thank you for your note. I am forwarding to our Advocacy committee. In fact we had a great deal of discussion on the matter. Cedric will update you. Catherine

That was six days ago. Nothing since. I wrote Bolton to ask her if PRSA had taken any action, or made any decisions. So far… nothing. See the PRSA code of ethics here. (“We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”)

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 31, 2004 7:21 PM   Print


I just stumbled upon your page from the NY Times article, and I have two comments.
1. this is a great post, and
2. this is one of the longest posts I've ever seen, in my several years of blogging! Keep up the good work!!

Posted by: steve at April 1, 2004 11:09 PM | Permalink

Although Ms. Ryan's defensive attitude fails to evoke any sympathy from me, I do share her puzzlement at the disproportionate amount of focus that's being placed on her.

In the stealthy, sneaky world of VNRs, she really is just a tiny cog. As is Home Front Communications and the Department of Health and Human Services. The ugly truth is that there are over 150 companies that produce video news releases for corporations, non-profits and government entities on a daily basis. And TV news outlets have been regularly shuffling these canned propaganda pieces into their broadcasts for twenty years now, while consistently failing to attribute the source of their footage.

My advice: leave Karen Ryan alone. Not because she deserves absolution, but because the bigger story lies elsewhere. Now if we can get the Jay Rosens and Zachary Roths of the world (God bless them, every one) to aim their heated gaze at our health-related news, I think that even they would be surprised at how much of the coverage consists of medical and pharmaceutical industry VNRs.

Posted by: Daniel Price at April 1, 2004 11:35 PM | Permalink

You lost me at the phrase She said she was just a cog in the Bush political machine, not a player.

Since it's not in quotes, I'm assuming she didn't actually say that.

Look, I've no brief for Karen or the Bush admin, but this seems a bit unfair. She is no more a part of the "Bush political machine" than the printer who makes up his letterhead.

Posted by: Chris Vosburg at April 2, 2004 12:11 AM | Permalink

Jay, isn't there a certain resonance between Karen Ryan's bewilderment, Bill Keller's defense of Judith Miller, Judith Miller's defense of herself and the generally baffled responses of the various other subjects of Michael Massing's Iraq coverage smackdown in the New York Review of Books?

At least Ryan was paid to be a shill, while many of our press luminaries assumed the role under false flags, apparently with the same sense of entitlement and the same presumption that someone else was responsible for assuring the legitimacy of their work.

I have little sympathy for Ryan, but I think the much larger issue is represented by things such as the general lack of reaction to Fox News abrogating Richard Clarke's background agreement and becoming an official organ of the state, or the susceptibility of even experienced reporters to the concept of reporting as analagous to a screeenplay, with a narrative and plot points and protagonists and conflict but without the research.

I gather you've been following the Campaign Desk; have you noticed how their coverage has graduated from shocked to matter-of-fact in the short time they've been up and running? (Their attitude toward blogs has undergone a major if somewhat reluctant shift toward the positive as their attitude toward the mainstream press has shifted toward the cynical, which might be fodder for your gathering.)

Anyway, I think Ryan has a practical point though not a moral one: news organizations should be able to figure out when they're getting snowed, whether it's from outside or in, and many of them - and not just on the local level where resources are strained to the limit - are increasingly complicit in the failure to do so.

David Letterman giving ethics instruction to CNN really should be a late night joke.

Posted by: weldon berger at April 2, 2004 5:27 AM | Permalink

As a public relations professional for the past 12 years (and a metro news reporter and editor the 12 years before that) you won't get a defense of VNRs and the excesses of some PR folk from me. It concerns me greatly, professionally and ethically, however, that the actions of some are conflated into a generalization -- with, perhaps, a sneering reference to "real professions," say. I should think that journalists, who look down upon their broad-brush wielding critics from the vaunty heights, could find a more diverse palette than black and white. Yes, some PR people are paid to spin or obfuscate; but most are paid to point and illustrate. I cannot justify or excuse those PR people who see it as their job to pull the wool over the eyes of journalists -- even if some TV stations, or networks, have practices that allow these things to happen. I suppose we could all do our jobs better. The "real professionals" in PR should be as effective in policing themselves as journalists have done.

Posted by: Ken at April 2, 2004 8:44 AM | Permalink

Chris: This is what Roth wrote in his interview piece, paraphrasing Ryan:

"As she sees it, she's the smallest fish in the pond, someone who has become a scapegoat, when in fact she is only a cog in a vast p.r. machine. 'I'm the lowest person down on the bottom,' she told us."

Whether she's a cog in the Bush Administration's PR machine or its political machine may be a distinction without a difference, since the VNR in question was basically a political ad about an issue sure to be fought over during the campaign: what the new Medicare legislation actually does for senior citizens. That's why government watchdogs from the General Accounting Office were looking at it-- because it may be illegal.

As for the comparison to a printer of the Bush campaign's letterhead, that might be apt... if it was phony letterhead attempting to conceal the source of a communique from the campaign; if taxpayers paid the printer; and if, when asked about it, a Bush spokesman said, "no, this is real letterhead, from a real organization," then tried to prevent anyone from interviewing the printer, and never corrected himself when the press revealed his lie. No quite so innocent, is it?

Of course there are larger issues than Karen Ryan's deceptions. Which is why I called her a cog, a bit player, and a small time trickster. And it's also why I placed the episode in the larger context of the White House's press "theory" and practice.

Ken: The American Society of Newspaper Editors sent an official letter of protest to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson over the Ryan incident. Do you know of any comparable letter sent by professional associations in PR? I have not been able to find such. If you have, I would like to link to it. If there is none, why do you think that is?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 2, 2004 9:15 AM | Permalink

At least Ryan was paid to be a shill, while many of our press luminaries assumed the role under false flags, apparently with the same sense of entitlement and the same presumption that someone else was responsible for assuring the legitimacy of their work.

Weldon Berger, you rock.

As for poor Ms. Ryan, as I said in my web log, she would not have had a problem had she simply said "this is Karen Ryan on behalf of the Dept. of Health and Human Services"

Beyond that, we should focus our attention of the abuse of taxpayer funds.

Posted by: Alice Marshall at April 2, 2004 10:24 AM | Permalink

HHS man (looking over the script): "Wait, a minute: your sign off is, I'm Karen Ryan of Health and Human Services?"

Ryan: Yes, is that a problemn?

HHS Man (in disbelief): Is it a problem? Oh, I am sure there are plenty of news stations out there that will run our public service announcement as news, and let us feature our people instead of theirs as the one presenting it. You've given me a script for a public service announcement, an ad, and I wanted a video news release. That's N-E-W-S, Karen. You're supposed to be reporting the news here. If I wanted an announcement from HHS, I would have Secretary Thompson do it himself. Why do you think we hired you? You're an ex-journalist, and in a video news release, you speak and act like a journalist. I have to explain this to you? You're supposed to be a professional." (returns script.)

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 2, 2004 12:38 PM | Permalink


I enjoy your blog, but please, get over taking pot shots at a large group of people who do their jobs well in public relations. First of all, it's incredibly easy for someone in the cozy confines of blogosphere meta-analysis to dump on using PR content for the news, but out in the real world, it is almost impossible to find a story that isn't driven by public relations.

I'm a PR guy. A flack. And, strange as it may sound, I tell the truth. I don't doctor quotes when I send them out. I don't pretend to be journalist, even though press releases I write appear verbatim in local papers. I never deceive the public or reporters in the practice of my position. Every PR worker I know is the same.

Should Karen Ryan have used the word "reporting" in her tag line? No. But, shouldn't someone at these local stations have watched this story and noticed it was a massive softball that, even with the "deception" of being "real news" was a poorly-written puff piece in the first place? What does it say that a press release can so easily blend in with editorially-produced content? These are far more important questions to ask, and have a far greater impact on journalism's critical ability to accurately inform the public.

Journalists need to clean their own house before they go looking at PR as the world's great evil.

Posted by: Jay (Not Rosen) at April 2, 2004 1:06 PM | Permalink

Ryan: As a PR Pro it is my obligation to anticipate public reaction and advise you on the best course of action. A Video News Release is exactly like a print press release, only in video format. It must not pretend to be anything it is not. It is not enough to place this release, we have to do it in such a way that increases trust in the new Medicare law and DHHS.

Now with a few changes we can structure this release in such a way that TV news can use it with their own reporting around it. It is important to remember that PR is not advertising, we cannot control content, we can only get our message out.

DHHS man: "Oh, I didn't think of it that way, I see what you are getting at, what changes would you suggest?"

Half of being a PR Pro is pitching to the press, the other half is explaining the facts of PR life to your clients. Everyone in the business has such conversations with clients.

Beyond that, I think Ryan is a scapegoat. On the one hand the news directors have been embarrassed, on the other hand they lack the courage to go after the real culprits in the administration, so they vent their anger at Ryan. Now, as I said in my web log, a PR pro should be able to anticipate how the public is going to respond to something. In addition to her fraudulent "reporting", Ryan also made a grave miscalculation.

Posted by: Alice Marshall at April 2, 2004 1:20 PM | Permalink

Hi, Jay, the one who is Not Rosen: Listen, I wrote a critical essay, with arguments and evidence provided, about one public relations professional and a particular practice she engaged in. To sum it up as a "pot shot" directed at all of PR is just silly.

I've written about 100 such essays at my blog since September '03, and 99 of them were critical of the press. One is about PR. So I don't think "looking at PR as the world's great evil" is really what I'm up to here.

One other thing, which may be a philosophical disagreement. I appreciate being informed that "out in the real world, it is almost impossible to find a story that isn't driven by public relations." Now I know this sounds crazy, Jay, but I think news stories, even if they are aided by responsible public relations practices, ought to be driven by the freely-considered, independently made decisions of journalists. To me, that would be better, all around. Reports of how much the news is driven, and that is the word you used, by PR, which means the interests paying for the PR, alarm me. I have been reading them for years, and I don't disbelieve them-- I regret them.

I don't know how many, but I am willing to bet that there are people in public relations who are alarmed at this, too. Their thinking might be that successful PR injects information and perspective from the client's side of things into decisions that are best driven by others-- independent, professional journalists who find the material to be newsworthy by their own criteria.

That's best for PR in the long run-- and, curiously, in the real world too.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 2, 2004 2:19 PM | Permalink


I agree, this is a failure on the part of the PR world, and it isn't isolated. PR is not evil, but it is undergoing the same crisis of identity as journalism, trying to understand standards and defining its ethical boundaries.

More seriously, though, we have the following statement:

I have little sympathy for Ryan, but I think the much larger issue is represented by things such as the general lack of reaction to Fox News abrogating Richard Clarke's background agreement and becoming an official organ of the state, or the susceptibility of even experienced reporters to the concept of reporting as analagous to a screeenplay, with a narrative and plot points and protagonists and conflict but without the research.

This is deeply disturbing. Having watched the number of smear jobs increase dramatically - including against bloggers now that they are raising money for candidates - it's clear that the lack of discernment between truth and talking points, the 'he said, she said' mentality of journalistic stylings, is making it harder and harder to actually have a coherent discussion online.

This article on 'secret web sites' is an utter travesty, but it is an attempt, and not the last, to link what fringe nuts say on blogs to mainstream candidates, using the press as a dupe to continue the fraudulent storyline.

I don't know the answer, but the smear jobs are just out of control. This is a huge story; I don't know why there isn't a political smear job beat, in fact. If the NY Times is going to assign a reporter to the 'conservative beat' (a good idea, I think, though I'm not sure), doesn't it make sense to have someone on the 'dirty tricks beat'? There's a tremendous lack of education on this front.

Posted by: MattS at April 3, 2004 10:40 AM | Permalink

At least, Ms. Ryan is cute. Which is a lot more than can be said about 94% of the detractors now piling on.

Posted by: Tex at April 4, 2004 1:06 AM | Permalink

"There is no rational interpretation, professional ethic, or angle of vision in which the sentence, 'From Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting looks like anything other than a simple lie."

Oh, come on! I could as accurately say that your sentence is a "simple lie." Ryan's is only a lie if "reporting" is understood in the narrow sense in which only a professional reporter can report. But you know as well as I that the word has other less specific meanings. The context in which Ryan used the word certainly encourages people to understand the word in this specific sense. While I won't go so far as to say the context assures that everybody will understand it that way, I'm happy to go along with calling Ryan's statement a lie in effect.

But it's just not fair to characterize Ryan as simply a liar. What Ryan did is to tread into a slippery sloped, gray area without a moral altimeter. She probably took her bearings from print releases and advertorials, which appear everywhere, pull out all the stops to look like news and yet obviously are tolerated. It's ridiculous to pin so much blame on Ryan. It's like blaming a factory worker for an accident that--in a well regulated industry--wouldn't be easy or even possible to make.

Posted by: Oliver Baker at April 4, 2004 3:34 PM | Permalink

An accident, Oliver?

I find it fascinating, this reluctance to believe that Ryan and HHS were aiming for verisimilitude, the appearance of being a real reporter doing actual journalism. Why did the HHS man claim--falsely--that she was a "freelance journalist" if he did not want to maintain that illusion? Why did Ryan refer to herself as an ex-journalist if she was not attempting to seem like one, and justify the words "this is Karen Ryan reporting.." ?

Alice Marshall writes: "As for poor Ms. Ryan, as I said in my web log, she would not have had a problem had she simply said 'this is Karen Ryan on behalf of the Dept. of Health and Human Services'." The whole point of that video news release was to have the Department disappear from the news account, so as to borrow the perceived authority of the news.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 4, 2004 4:25 PM | Permalink

Jay, no, I wouldn't call what Ryan did an accident. The analogy I was thinking of was an assembly line worker performing a monotonous task and on one iteration straying beyond some narrow tolerance which, because there is no professionally or federally mandated safety barrier, brings her finger into contact with a whirring blade. An accident has happened. But it was all in the line of what this hypothetical woman is paid to do. She was performing the same operation she and her coworkers had performed a million times before, but she strayed a little too far to the right, and in the environment in which she works the results were disastrous. That's the kind of analogy I was thinking of.

Posted by: Oliver Baker at April 4, 2004 4:49 PM | Permalink

Someone here posted the following; I am re-emphasizing it, because I don't think it should get overlooked:

"Now if we can get the Jay Rosens and Zachary Roths of the world (God bless them, every one) to aim their heated gaze at our health-related news, I think that even they would be surprised at how much of the coverage consists of medical and pharmaceutical industry VNRs."

The power and dangerous influence of the pharmaceutical/ medical [not to mention insurance] industry in our country is terrifying, and I think, really insidious. They promote fear -- in particular, fear of death -- and then offer gentle cures. They promote fearful, ignorant dependency on their advice and [mostly questionable] drugs. I cannot emphasize that last word enough, but let me try: DRUGS.

It is likely that many otherwise objective journalists are themselves so frightened by all the industry's brainwashing that they can't see it for what it is, wake up, and expose it to the light.

Posted by: AWS at April 4, 2004 5:43 PM | Permalink

Oliver: Okay, I see the point of the analogy now.

But you're not taking Karen Ryan herself very seriously, and neither are most of her defenders here. Let me remind you: She thinks she did nothing wrong-- nothing at all. She does not agree that there was any "accident," any slip. To her there is one issue only--was the thing somewhere, somehow "marked" as being a VNR--and since it was marked, all responsibility, all questions, all concerns shift to the journalists. In her own mind she is not only innocent, but a victim of malpractice in the press. I wrote as much about that as her original "crime," because I think it's way more remarkable.

This may be hard for you, and especially for PR people to grasp, but... I think the video news release has been an unrecognized scandal, an illegitmate tool, a con, from the beginning. The very title, "video news release" is a little work of propaganda, the purpose of which was to prevent any large scale debate about the practice by naming it for the earlier form, the printed press release-- as if they were fundamentally similar.

But in my view they aren't. The level of verisimilitude in a well produced VNR goes way beyond press releases mailed out on paper, even though those are too are written to ape the sound of a news story.

If a press release sent to the Dallas Morning News came with the text pasted up to look like the pages of the Dallas Morning News, with photos positioned amid the copy, and captions on the photos, and a byline, and subheads in bold type separating the sections, and two decks of headlines in 16 and 12 point type, and the entire package could be dropped into the newspaper with a few mouse clicks-- then the video news release and the press release would be comparable.

VNR's were a strategic ploy aimed primarly at local stations that, with air time to fill, are chronically short of manpower. The VNR offers lower cost-per-minute programming when used "as is," so to speak. Success in the VNR game is when the piece runs virtually unedited. In order for that to happen, you need the versimilitude-- it has to look, and sound, like real news, so that a viewer cannot tell the difference if the VNR runs. Only then does it lower the cost-per-minute for TV news.

Because the practice is inherently deceptive, and relies on a sell-your-soul calculation among journalists, all hopes for legitimating it ride on that little label, "clearly marking" the material as a new release. That's the responsibility shifter. Of course this quest for clarity does not extend to the content a viewer might see if the piece aired-- that isn't labeled. It would interfere with the verisimilitude, and thus with the deception.

A deception, routinized, clears the path for the next deception. Extend that pattern and you get Karen Ryan: "I did nothing wrong. Nothing."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 4, 2004 7:14 PM | Permalink

Actually, it's not uncommon to see text from a printed press release cut and pasted into a journalist's article without attribution, and little or no alteration.

As with the VNR, the ultimate goal of the press release is to have its prime selling points laundered out to the public through the mouth a credible reporter.

It's the same brand of deception. The printed press release simply isn't as powerful as the VNR. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. But with all forms of media, we need to start questioning where those words are coming from.

Posted by: Daniel Price at April 4, 2004 8:15 PM | Permalink

Jay, I'm sure you do a disservice to what an average Dallas Morning News reporter can accomplish with a mouse and a good word processor. Obviously, it takes little effort to turn PR copy and PR photos into the branded end product of a newspaper or magazine publisher. I think verisimilitude in print releases is tolerated simply because it doesn't much increase the incentive for a journalist to parrot the release that exhibits it. The glossiness of a print release doesn't promise to save a print journalist much if any work. A Ryan-style VNR is more "dangerous" only because video and sound editing technology doesn't let the newsroom tinker with the text like a word processor or layout software can do with words and images for print. The issue I think is that we trust print journalists with the temptation that realistic print releases pose them, but we don't trust TV journalists with the greater temptation that Ryanesque VNRs pose to _them_. I'm very sympathetic to Ryan, if she thought she shouldn't be any less entitled than her PR colleagues in print to use the tool of mimicry.

As I posted on the news list of the National Association of Science Writers, I think this is a little like cigarettes, which though poisonous are perfectly legal to manufacture and are only illegal for sale or distribution to children. In Ryan's case, we have something like the government handing out cigarettes to children on our dime. But there's no law against either the manufacture of VNRs or against providing them to TV news rooms per se. I wouldn't even be surprised if there were no specific advice one hears about this either on the job or as a journalism or communications major (I've never heard it). Teachers and mentors should specifically speak to it, and hopefully after this furor they will. But, for now, it doesn't surprise me at all that Ryan would think what she did is perfectly OK--or at least that she would think that she could plausibly make this claim when she's under the gun. There's an abundance of signals out there to suggest that what she did _is_ OK.

Posted by: Oliver Baker at April 4, 2004 9:15 PM | Permalink

I wrote: "A Ryan-style VNR is more "dangerous" only because video and sound editing technology doesn't let the newsroom tinker with the text..."

I shouldn't have said "only." Also it's more expensive in terms of labor and goods to report and assemble a TV story than it is to do it for print. I suspect TV newsrooms save a lot more money splicing in a VNR than newspapers save by cutting and pasting print releases.

Posted by: Oliver Baker at April 4, 2004 9:24 PM | Permalink

As a consumer of news, I think that HHS would have done better with a straightforward PSA, because having a TV reporter speaking positively about its program would make me suspicious at the outset, especially if she wasn't a local reporter.

They also may have misrepresented the cost of the prescription drug bill, but that's not really proveable, given the state of the art of budget forecasting.

What I found particularly unpersuasive was Ken Auletta's sniffing about the White House seeing "reporters as special-pleaders . . . as if the press were simply another interest group."

Most of us out here among the great unwashed see reporters like those in the White House press corps as rude, supercilious, arrogant and definitely interested only in spin. That so many members of the press seem to share the same ideology makes the argument that they represent a special interest seem pretty plausible.

My reaction to the Karen Ryan story was that it just confirmed my cynicism toward TV reporters in general and PR people specifically.

Posted by: AST at April 6, 2004 7:12 PM | Permalink

I have a question on an intimately related issue.

If a government agency puts out a press release containing a quote from someone who works at the agency, is it acceptable for a news agency to use the quote as a quote?

For example, if a university were to put out a press release quoting the sports director as saying, "We won!" would you approve of a newspaper using the quote in the form, "The sports director said, 'We won!'"

Personally, I would prefer that a reporter actually heard the words and saw the sports director's lips move.

I bring this up after reading "coverage" of an event as reported by three different text-based news sources - none of which actually had representation at the event. All their coverage included the same quotes as I found on a press release concerning the event.

I apologize in advance if this question is too far off-thread.

Posted by: Larry Gillick at April 7, 2004 10:11 PM | Permalink

So PR people lie for money, huh. Who knew. The fact is, if journalists weren't so lazy, greedy, self-serving, corruptible and biased in the first place, no one in PR would have a job. The industry wouldn't exist.

Posted by: dbs at April 8, 2004 10:22 AM | Permalink


You can accuse journalists as a lot of things - including players in the machinery, glorified PR writers, glory hounds, lazy bastards or even self-appointed crusaders, but in my long-time association with journalists of every political stripe and bias no one (or, more accurately no one I knew, including Jayson Blair) was in it for money.

What I can't really understand is the resignation on this board that simply accepts this as a fact of life. I can't dispute that journalism - especially inside the beltway journalism - is in bed with certain elements (and in "media watchdog" Howie Kurtz' case, literally, assuming his marriage is doing fine), which in effect, makes them little more than PR flacks anyway.

But why that mitigates the Bushies zeal to construct an alternate reality and absolves the cynical duplicity of people like Ryan is beyond me.

PR is what it is. At its best (and most benign) it pitches stories for travel, consumer products, authors, etc. But when it pitches government policy as fake news clips, paid for by taxpayers, it crosses the line into abject propaganda.

Posted by: Jay at April 8, 2004 11:09 AM | Permalink

If a government agency puts out a press release containing a quote from someone who works at the agency, is it acceptable for a news agency to use the quote as a quote?

For example, if a university were to put out a press release quoting the sports director as saying, "We won!" would you approve of a newspaper using the quote in the form, "The sports director said, 'We won!'"

This is an acceptable practice because the sports director actually said "We won!" Whether or not the reporter actually heard the sports director, if their press release has a quote, that means the words should be attributed to that individual. The problem with contemporary journalism is not attributed quotes.

Posted by: Alice Marshall at April 8, 2004 1:14 PM | Permalink

In defense of public relations consultants, I would say that communicating to the press is like any other skill, it has to be learned. If you are running a business, community organization, church, government agency, or any other organization, there are not enough hours in the day to learn how to talk to the press in addition to your regular duties, so you hire someone.

Posted by: Alice Marshall at April 8, 2004 1:18 PM | Permalink

Ryan is unbelievable. it's not her fault for lying; it's the journalists' fault for not catching her lies. amazing. this is almost satire-proof.

[i'm reminded of the episode of the "Simpsons" wherein convicted attempted murderer Sideshow Bob is released from prison (under duress) by Mayor Quimby. Bob ends up campaigning for mayor himself, and runs ads criticizing Quimby for releasing a convicted felon back into the population (Bob wins, of course).]

Posted by: CF at April 9, 2004 4:24 PM | Permalink

In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve been following the Karen Ryan story in part because I worked with her several years ago – I was a PR consultant and she was a television reporter who did a segment about a client. (As it turned out, Karen’s segment was the only one – among about a dozen or so – that got everything right. That’s apropos of nothing, but I find it ironic.) She’s really not a career PR person, though. She is a former broadcast reporter who started a consulting firm a few years ago.

Anyway, I am not writing to defend Karen as I have never liked the use of hired-gun broadcast reporters appearing on camera in VNRs. Let me just say upfront that I prefer b-roll to VNRs and I prefer providing b-roll only where I can justify it to a producer in that it’s footage they couldn’t otherwise easily obtain or shoot at all. I think the viewing public understands that some footage they see might be supplied footage, so I have no moral dilemma about that. Some producers will only use supplied footage with a credit line, much as some print media outlets will only run a supplied photo that way. Certainly many print and broadcast outlets say they won’t take either, but many of them bend their own rules if it’s something they really want or they recognize that they couldn’t otherwise shoot it. The point is that the PR profession works with the media on these things, there is a dialogue. We are trying to get information out there, we are not trying to lie, cheat and steal.

Here’s why I don’t like having a hired gun on camera in a VNR: The public may understand that footage is sometimes supplied but I don’t think they understand reporters are sometimes supplied. So I don’t like it, but a lot of what I like and don’t like is probably dictated by how I need to behave to be credible with the news organizations I’m pitching. So I am not holding myself out to be the last virtuous PR person in the world. But I can recall a specific instance not long ago when I objected to a similar “Joe Schmoe reporting” line in the script. The VNR producer said in all his years of doing VNRs it was the first time anyone objected to that as being shady. And you cannot imagine how condescending he was about it. As though I was the one who was an idiot because I didn’t get how this works.

A lot of VNR people are former broadcast producers, and many of them never held “reporters” in very high regard. They are “talent.” So as a PR person, you have former producers who are VNR specialists telling you this is the way it’s done and I think a lot of PR people are cowed by that. Not that that’s an excuse. But here’s a more interesting ethical question: What if a producer told me to go out and shoot something, with talent, and the station will air it? Would I break my own rule? Jay, you will not like this answer, but if it’s at their request, I probably would. I think it comes down to whether I am doing anything, or being a party to anything, that is intentionally deceptive or misleading. If a producer asked me to go shoot something and I knew it was somehow not truthful, I would not do it under any circumstances, even if it meant big exposure for a client. So I think for PR people there are some things that are moral absolutes and some things that we do more because we need to play by the rules of press ethics. But in general I think the vast majority – press and PR – is trying to do the right thing at any given time. So this is a useful discussion and I’m glad you’ve brought the practice into question, although I don’t like that it’s turned into an indictment of the entire PR profession.

But as regards “Karen Ryan reporting,” in my view that’s just not the wronger wrong here. Using a taxpayer-funded public relations campaign to promote the Administration’s action on Medicare is, to me, the larger violation. Way the f--- larger. There is nothing inherently wrong with using tax dollars to pay for a public relations initiative, whether it’s a responsibly executed VNR or something else. Legitimate public information campaigns have helped communicate important information about many things, public health issues among them. But this is a case of paying for a political initiative by guising it as a public information initiative. That’s the strategy. They used a VNR in order to carry out this deception. That’s the tactic. That a hired gun appeared in the VNR as a reporter is a questionable albeit common practice. But it’s third down from the top of my list.

Of course if one believes that all VNRs are a big con, I supposed one might not see any of that nuance. As a PR person for 20 years, I have provided news producers with both b-roll and VNRs with voiceover. I’ve provided grateful producers with things like aerial, scientific, technical and historic footage they could not have otherwise shot. I’ve provided video on events in locations that producers could not have otherwise covered. I’ve also sent some very silly news on very silly topics to producers and I admit I’ve been guilty of taking up their valuable time. But a big con? Sorry, no.

I have seen VNRs containing “Joe Schmoe reporting” signoffs. Until I objected to it, I’m not sure I realized it was common practice. In the instances I recall seeing, Joe Schmoe was some kind of freelance broadcast talent and the news in question was some gimmick for Snackeroos. It wasn't paid for with tax dollars and it wasn’t intended to promote a political agenda under the guise of news. If the practice is wrong, I would agree it’s wrong, regardless of context. But in this case I think the context is the larger question.

To clarify how VNRs work: PR people, agencies or in-house, hire an outside firm or independent producer to create the VNR, which may include a “finished” ready-to-air story but usually also has interview footage and other background footage. The finished story, if provided, usually has a voiceover and may have a freelance broadcast reporter on camera. But news producers often fashion their own stories using the supplied footage. Sometimes I’ve justified providing the “finished” portion with voiceover so a producer can see my take on the story, just as a print reporter would read a news release and then go write his or her own story. It depends on the situation. Either way, VNRs are not intended to snooker news organizations or their audiences. They are intended to offer footage and producers can make their own choices how and whether to use it.

If you take the view that all PR is a corruption of the newsgathering process, I suppose you would not see any of that as legitimate. I would offer this point: Most PR people work for business and business interests. As such, our role is to facilitate the flow of information to the public through the press. Businesses – unlike government, law enforcement, the courts, schools, etc. – have no obligation (other than rules for publicly traded companies) to reveal records, hold public meetings, etc. Particularly among press covering business, for every reporter who complains about PR people, you will find many more who will tell you they are useful to getting the job done. This isn’t “cozy” – it’s just the practical reality of having someone in charge of making sure the press has access to the company. Reporters often call PR people “a necessary evil,” which I think is a pat answer to avoid the appearance of impropriety. I think if they were honest they would say the relationship is far more useful than that.

There are many studies showing how much news content, especially business news, is “generated” by PR people. What that really means is that a lot of news is being announced by companies as opposed to being independently sought out by a reporter. Why would anyone find this surprising? I would find it disturbing if the opposite were true. It would mean American companies are so stupid that they don’t understand when they have news of substance to report publicly. In addition, the proliferation of news media has forced all types of organizations and political entities to manage their communications functions. No one can communicate on the wing anymore. I think people who are the watchdogs on these issues should be somewhat realistic about that; it will make you a better watchdog.

But I digress. I’d like to make a point about why all the focus on “Karen Ryan reporting” has obfuscated the wronger wrong. The HHS VNR was part of a larger program, with a large agency helming it. It probably involved a formal request for proposal (RFP) with the agency winning the assignment in an open competitive process. Somewhere, there is a record about this. Somewhere, there was an objective in the public interest that was supposed to be met with the use of federal funds. Then, someone, somewhere, decided to use some of these funds to spin the Medicare message as a stroke for the Administration. It was probably a political appointee whose experience and background was in campaigns and not the larger practice of public relations, so spinning seemed like the only good idea for miles.

That’s the story I would like to read. But it’s not a story for point-of-view journalism. Someone has to dig up the facts and present it in a balanced way. I would like to read that story because I think it has implications not just for questionable PR practices but for the way the federal government operates and whether individual departments routinely divert initiatives in the public interest to promote whatever administration is in office.

Unfortunately it is probably more interesting to more people to discuss “Karen Ryan reporting” and her pushback that she did nothing wrong. But I see this as a missed opportunity for journalism.

PS – I buried the lede, didn’t I?

Posted by: George-Ann at April 9, 2004 5:12 PM | Permalink

Karen Ryan believes she's done nothing wrong because she believes voice-over is "reporting". The issue will always be: what constitutes "journalism" and what defines "reporter".

Posted by: Breuss Wane at April 23, 2004 7:02 PM | Permalink

Journalists can be greedy for things other than money.

Just the way you answered my original post is just another example of the arrogance of journalists - you imply that (most) every journalist is a massively gifted genius who of course could make millions but decides to use their talents to further society. What a crock!

Most journalists I know would be barely functional at even the lowest level of management in a typical US corporation, including PR and ad firms.

Posted by: dbs at May 5, 2004 9:05 AM | Permalink

Ryan is unbelievable.
That's not her fault for lying - it's the journalists' fault for not catching her lies...

Posted by: John at May 16, 2004 3:42 AM | Permalink

I worked with Ms. Ryan at a PBS station in Miami. She is not your typical "Bushie", but rather just a hired gun, available to the highest bidder. This just shows just how high (or low), the right wing is able to go!

Kerry will need to delay accepting the nomination forever if he thinks he can even come close to "Money Bags Bush" and his incredibly corrupt ilk. I'm sure anyone of us would have been lured by the kind of money these pigs can throw at you. Times have been hard of late for TV producers and reporters who are not perky, young model types. Instead of piling on Ms.Ryan for something anyone might do, if the need were great enough, why not direct your invective toward the real corruption? The real crooks are the ones who hold the keys to the immense right wing war chest and are truly the "evil doers", as Dub-ya so eloquently put it.

Posted by: Father Tom at May 26, 2004 10:39 PM | Permalink

From the Intro