The final episode in Ira Basen's Spin Cycles series is a bit of a schmozzle (not to be confused with 'schlimazel' which refers to someone who is inept), a mix of the habitual juvenile sniping at public relations (especially agencies who create those corporately funded front groups or astroturf organizations that propogate "junk science"; Basen's example is Friends of Science,) some thumping of his colleagues in the media for being merely the "stenographers" of the powerful, and more unchallenged commentary by the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization that can spin with the best of them. Frankly, though, Basen finally hits a couple of home runs -- well, maybe infield singles -- in this episode:
Public relations professionals, and many companies, need to do some soul searching about our efforts to deny, or support the denial of, the impact of carbon emissions on climate. Basen claims "Audiences were led to believe there was a meaningful debate (over carbon emissions and climate change) within the scientific community long after there ceased to be one." Evidence now suggests this might be the case . . . see the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change.
Social media represent in the words of Richard Edelman as heard on Spin Cycles "the wisdom of the crowd . . . the cacophony of participation." While still in its infancy, and suffering from childish bouts of self-absorption and silly pop culture pre-occupations, social media hold out hope as a replacement for retreating journalistic integrity and independence. I would argue that legitimate, intelligent, curious, and investigative bloggers may now become the "estate" for asking questions of power. George Pitcher, the author of The Death of Spin, says to escape spin we need a more vigorous public sphere: social media may be that sphere.
Basen offers up two commentators who provide some truly interesting texture to discussions about the future of journalism and the role of public relations. Jay Rosen argues there is potential for a natural convergence of social media and journalism. His own blog, while dense, is focused on a fascinating idea: "The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached."
Julia Hobsbawn even accepts a role for public relations in this new convergence. To get the best sense of her ideas, don't bother listening to the audio which suffers from Basen's prejudicial subjectivity: her transcipt interview here is more instructive about her views and provides some evidence about what has been wrong with this whole series . . .
"But I also think it's worth emphasizing that journalism also has its paymaster. It's extremely rare for journalism not to have an actual expectation of bias in some quarters or an institutional bias. Now I don't mean that is to say that all journalism is coloured but what I do mean is that editorials and comment pieces are bias and that they're absolutely standard in many newspapers and broadcasters, that a certain kind of coverage will be given to one thing and not another. So I think we have to be, at the very least, philosophical and . . . quite apart from anything else, getting a bit more real about the actual differences between the moral parameters of PR and the moral parameters of journalism."
Hobsbawn's comments -- be philosophical; get real -- underscore the chief failings, on balance, of the Spin Cycles series. It allowed prejudice about public relations to get in the way of exploring the complexities of transparency and truth in the information-sharing industries. It assumed a fundamental moral superiority to broadcast and newspaper journalism corrupted now by political and business spin, and a basic bankruptcy to the whole concept of public relations now simply more slick and manipulative. And it looked at the nature of the new online demos and its "cacophony of participation" with the same unfortunate cynical, even dismissive, tone that it approached most of the major questions about communication in our age.
Comment, argument, disagreement and, of course, praise about my assessment more than welcome.