The Komen “reversal”: a crushing failure of America’s newsrooms

Yesterday I attempted to shed a little light on the PR crisis strategy behind the Komen Foundation’s sudden Planned Parenthood “backtracking.”

Contrary to what Komen’s highly-paid PR crisis hacks and gullible headline writers at newsdesks around the nation would ask you to believe, The Susan G. Komen Foundation does NOT promise to fund Planned Parenthood in the future. They promise to let PP APPLY for grants in the future. Applying and receiving are different things, as anyone who ever applied and got rejected for a job ought to know.

The announcement is timed beautifully – just before Super Bowl Weekend – and they’re hoping that the combination of the pretend apology and the big game will insure that, come Monday morning, nobody will remember what they did. They can then find a reason to deny those future Planned Parenthood grant apps when nobody is paying much attention.

The title of that post wonders if the American public will be stupid enough to fall for it. Perhaps the question I should have been asking was this: why are America’s copy editors stupid enough to fall for it? Witness the headlines from some of the nation’s more prominent purveyors of journalism:

  • Komen Drops Plans to Cut Planned Parenthood Grants – ABC News
  • Komen reverses Planned Parenthood move – angering antiabortion activists – Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Komen reverses move to cut Planned Parenthood funding – Reuters
  • Komen backs off decision on funding cuts –
  • Komen Reverses Stance on Planned Parenthood – Bloomberg
  • Web Fury Spurs Komen Reversal, $3 Million for Planned Parenthood – BusinessWeek
  • Cancer Group Backs Down on Cutting Off Planned Parenthood – New York Times
  • Komen does about-face on cuts to Planned Parenthood – The Seattle Times
  • Komen changes course on Planned Parenthood funding – Atlanta Journal Constitution
  • Charity Does an About-Face – Wall Street Journal
  • Komen Caves Under Pressure, Reinstates PP Funding – Forbes
  • Komen Charity Reverses Planned Parenthood Grant Cuts – PBS News Hour

It’s frightening how much journalism has changed in a generation. For instance, there used to be a subtle game of cat-and-mouse between the PR hacks who wanted their clients’ stories told a certain way and the journalists who wanted the story told the right way. The pros would tune up a pitch and present it to a reporter or editor so that it put the organization in the best light. There was something of a negotiational process. And the publisher went to press with a headline (written by the copy desk) that, in their view, best summarized the nuts and bolts of the story. The PR pro/journalist relationship was a professional one, with each side understanding the demands of the other’s job. A good PR exec would work to make the reporter’s job easier by making sure the pitch was tailored to the publication’s audience and the reporter understood that the PR industry could be a helpful source of information – after all, communities have a vested interest in the businesses and private organizations that serve them, right? Reporters often resented the high salaries that PR professionals earned (and any number of reporters eventually migrated over to “the dark side” for this very reason – in fact, most of the best PR people I have known in my career followed precisely that path), but there was a productive symbiosis that worked well so long as everyone did his or her job well.

I remember the frustration on the 50th floor at 1801 California in Denver back in the late ’90s when US West would go to the press with a story and they’d spin it differently than we wanted. This happened often enough, and especially with quarterly earnings reports. The Media Relations and Investor Relations teams would hone the story to a fine edge, release it to the world, and what appeared in the papers the next day often bore very little resemblance to what we had put out. Why? Well, the PR group’s job is like that of a lawyer – represent the client’s interest, period. The reporter, on the other hand, was more like the judge, making sure that due attention was paid to the facts themselves. The audience was the jury.

That was then, and this is now. While the nature of financial reporting is such that you still get some actual journalism when earnings are released (thanks to the laws and regulations around corporate finance), the rest of the newsroom might as well be on the payroll of the PR firm doing the pitching. My colleague, Dr. Denny, spent 20 years on the copy desk and has dedicated significant energy here at S&R to explaining why our papers are increasingly populated by unedited PR copy (and to the corrosive impact this exerts on our democracy). The next time you’re thinking of buying a book on why the republic has gone to hell, save your money. Just click that link above and spend a few hours reflecting on his analysis. It’s more illuminating than just about anything on the virtual shelves at Amazon. And it’s free.

I don’t want to put words in Denny’s mouth, but I suspect had yesterday’s “reversal” story broken on a day when Denny was running the copy desk he’d have taken the time to:

  • actually read the release;
  • consider the established context of the story and the motivations of the players involved (no, he wouldn’t project his politics into the story, but he would be aware of the politics of the organizations because that’s at the center of the controversy);
  • take a moment to think about the importance of the story to the community he served – what was their interest?
  • Oh, yeah – he’d consider how much space he had and whether there were other more pressing stories.

Then he’d have edited the story according to these factors and he’d have written a headline that summarized what Komen had actually done. If, in his professional judgment, Komen was legitimately reversing field, that’s what the headline would have said. If, on the other hand, he had read the facts of the case the way I do, he would have ignored the cleverly crafted 48-point bold headline that Komen’s PR folks had put at the top of the page.

But yesterday, all across America, copy editors who are in too many cases inexperienced, poorly trained and swamped with more responsibility than one person can reasonably manage, did what they usually do. They took the headline at face value and ran the press release pretty much as-is.

And what landed in front of the public, flying under the banner of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Seattle Times, and, the gods help us, the PBS News Hour, was unfiltered crisis PR put together by hacks paid not to think about the best interests of the public, but about the financial and political agendas of their client. Put in the terms of my courtroom analogy above, it’s like we’ve made the defense attorney the judge and jury, as well.

The lesson, sadly, is that with this story (and just about all other stories of importance to the citizens of the US), we cannot look to the press for help. They have become nothing more than the publication arm of the American public relations industry. Typists. Transcriptionists. Gofers. Foot soldiers.

So it’s up to us to read closely, to think critically, and to keep each other plugged in, using whatever tools are available, so that we can make informed decisions in the public interest. If we don’t, nobody will.


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