Gatekeeper v. amateurs

The powerful — the rich and the elected — used to be the gatekeepers to information. Then, with the advent of mass media, journalists took over that role. They were the gatekeepers to the public. A few decades ago, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, PR people got to become gatekeepers to news because they controlled access to the famous, rich, and powerful. But now that we are entering the age of the amateur — when no one can hold a monopoly on the tools of information — I hope we will witness the death of the gatekeeper. We’ll see.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m appearing on Howie Kurtz’ Reliable Sources this morning with PR mogul and blogger Richard Edelman to talk about the Walmart story. And so I’ve been mulling what he and fellow flack Andy Plesser said in the Observer: Edelman said that journalists “are not God anymore” and Plesser said that PR people are “the gatekeepers for news and information.” They’re both right but I hope they’ll both soon be wrong.

I witnessed the rise of the power of PR in the mid-80s, when the rest of media changed thanks to the humble remote control. That was when the clicker passed 50 percent penetration in American homes and, with the cable box and the VCR. Big media laments the resulting “fragmentation,” but I celebrate this instead as choice. The result, in any case, was a much more competitive landscape in media, which made it much more difficult to both reach and control large audiences.

Media became much more competitive and complex. I was the TV critic for People magazine then, lucky enough to witness this shift. Before I got there, before the remote took over, all you had to do to have a hit on the newsstand was to put a Top 10 show on the cover. But suddenly, that didn’t happen anymore — because the audience was no longer captive to a choice among only three networks. My editor and mentor at People, Pat Ryan, was known to shout at me from down the hall when disappointing sales results for TV covers came in: “TV’s dead, Jarvis, dead!” So the magazine made a shift, concentrating more on the events in the stars’ lives than in their careers: births, marriages, diseases, deaths. I said it was the birth of bodily fluids journalism.

At that moment, PR people realized just how valuable their stars’ images and stories were to magazine sales. At that moment, they became the gatekeepers: ‘If you want my star, you’re going to guarantee a cover or let us pick reporters or pictures or even questions and if you don’t want my star, I’ll go across the street to all the other magazines that are desperately using celebrity to support their sales and they’ll do what I want.’

The same thing happened in politics, where they became much savvier about controlling the message. In George Bush’s White House, we see the highest form of this art of gatekeeping. As Jay Rosen has pointed out frequently, they tell only what they want to tell. And we saw this happen even in business, where corporate PR learned how to spin.

As a result, we also saw the professionalization of PR. Journalism schools gave out degrees in PR (which I think is a mistake for both). PR became more powerful and lucrative. Spin became an art. Soon, everyone was no longer famous for 15 minutes; that’s so over. Instead, everyone got media training.

The problem with gatekeepers is that they try to control, to get in the way, to keep us from getting what we want.

And the problem with professionalism is that it’s all about separation from the public: a belief that you can manipulate them because they know less than you do.

That’s called spin.

And so, I hope that the movement of amatuerism may be an antidote to professional gatekeeping. No, we bloggers don’t have all the tools and access that the pros have. But we have the ability to ask questions and keep pressure on.

So when journalists of The New York Times criticized bloggers in the Walmart story, we bloggers came back and criticized the journalists, telling them: doctors, heal thyselves; reporters, reveal thyselves. We said that they are not transparent enough about their relationship with PR and spin. We put the pressure on. That’s what we do.

We can’t take over their role of acting as gatekeepers to audience or information because the age of scarcity of information and distribution are over; anybody can do this. We shouldn’t want to be gatekeepers. We shouldn’t want to get in the way of connecting people to what they want to know. We should do just the opposite and enable more people to find out more information. That’s what media and we can do now.

When there is a proper balance, then journalists can do what they should do: find out what other people don’t want us to know. And PR people can do what they should do: get official information to you. And we can do what we should do: judge for ourselves.

So learn the lesson of the gatekeepers: Their reign never lasts forever.

: LATER: : Steve Rubel, now of Edelman, argues that we’re all gatekeepers. I hope not. Gatekeeping is about keeping people from something. I think the ethic of this age is about sharing, which includes transparency.

: See Terry Heaton’s comment to this post:

Professional journalism and professional PR are two sides of the same coin, having been birthed in the Creel Committee days of Woodrow Wilson’s administration. As Walter Lippmann’s social engineering vision (the elite shall lead) birthed professional journalism, so did Edward Bernays social engineering vision (“it is now possible to control…the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”) birth professional PR.

The triumph of personal technology over mass technology is undercutting both of these visions. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

And as Chris Lasch used to remark about Lippmann, the rise in the professionalization of the news business produced a decline in the public’s involvement in the political process. This is why I think a rather remarkable political change is coming.

PR will likely become more and more essential for business and industry downstream, perhaps even supplanting advertising. Their problem, however, will be to find a way to participate in Media 2.0, and that won’t be easy.

: Umair Haque says that transparency is not a matter of ethics but of business strategy. He’s right. If your constituents don’t trust you and you don’t hold a monopoly, then you’ll be out of business.

: See Richard Edelman’s post about the Observer story — in which he argues that “traditional media matters now more than ever” and shares a lesson about giving interviews during cocktail hours. Perhaps he’s dreading the reporters who say, ‘hey, so I’m not God, huh?’ I think he was right the first time. See also his post about the Walmart story.

See Andy Plesser’s comment re my post on the Observer story, below.

In many areas, noteably government, celebrity and business PR, corporate communications professionals manage the flow of information and completely shape the news. And I believe a vast majority of news and feature coverage on television and in print is generated by public relations professionals. And, you’re right journalists are loath to acknowledge this. It’s kind of dark secret, I suppoe.

So maybe “gatekeeper” is a pejorative term and not altogether accurate, perhaps “agenda setter” is more accurate.

And, of course, there are many wonderful enterprising reporters and I didn’t mean to dimish their great work by my quote.

No, the public sets the agenda and if anyone — journalist, politician, marketer, manufacturer, academician, PR person — forgets that, they will fail. They are all trying to figure out what the agenda of the people is. And the smart ones are realizing they have a new way to discern that because we have a new way of communicating it. We’re speaking. Stop gatekeeping. Stop agenda-setting. Stop spinning. Listen.

Shhhh. Listen.

: LATER STILL: I have been quite properly taken to task in the comments for using the phrase “train bloggers” on the show. I’ll find an excuse for a slip of the tongue. What I meant was just this: The Times pulled a sucker punch, I believe, when it found one blogger who was clueless enough to quote the Edelman Walmart PR letter without attributionk, as if it was his own. I don’t know the blogger, but it was a clueless thing to day. But I suspect he had no ill intent. So I think somebody should clue him in about revealing such things. And while we’re at it, somebody should clue in big media journalists about being transparent about the stories and information that come from flacks, not to mention their favors and lunches when it’s relevant. I’d say that big-media journalists need more training in this than bloggers. Still, I apologize for using the phrase “train bloggers.” There, am I forgiven now?

: Glenn Reynolds quotes the CNN Reliable Sources transcript. I agree with him about the Times reporter.

: Oh, and this is a good time to reiterate my full disclosures: I consult for The Times Company at; as I said before, Edelman bought me a danish in December and his sister invited me to lunch awhile ago. But I still don’t shop at Walmart.