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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:

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