"The critic of power tries to influence the world by affecting public opinion. The associate of power tries to make the exercise of power more


Hacks turned flacks

"The critic of power tries to influence the world by affecting public opinion. The associate of power tries to make the exercise of power more amenable to the public."

—Richard Hofstadter (1963)

In 1993, while working on a story about Boeing's environmental record for The Washington Free Press, I placed a call to the company's public-information department. A fellow named John Kvasnosky picked up the phone. After telling him what I was doing, Kvasnosky informed me straight-away: "You know, Mark... we are a major force in the region." Not that the point needed to be any clearer, but Kvasnosky went on to explain that Boeing would frown on any negative publicity and not "cooperate" with me.

Kvasnosky's bullying tactics make "flack," the slang label commonly applied to his profession, seem especially appropriate. Just as anti-aircraft flak is deployed to keep planes from getting too close to the ground, Kvasnosky and his kind are deployed to keep reporters from getting too close to the truth.

Today, when you call Boeing, you may reach a flack who's an expert in keeping reporters at bay. That's because Sean Griffin used to be one. Readers of Tacoma's News Tribune who once saw Griffin's name on top of stories about Boeing now see it in stories about Boeing. Griffin crossed over to what's known in the information industry as "the dark side"—from working on behalf of the public uncovering and delivering information about an organization, to parceling out information to the public (and withholding it) on behalf of an organization.

Griffin, the News Tribune's Boeing reporter for six years until Boeing lured him away last summer, contends he was one of the company's "most persistent critics." And he did indeed break a few critical stories, including one about seven-digit executive bonuses that fueled the 1996 machinists' strike. But however threatened Boeing may have felt by Griffin the reporter didn't stop it from hiring Griffin the PR person. Judging by Griffin's philosophy on public relations, the company has little reason to worry about where his loyalties lie: "I don't have a problem representing a company position that I don't agree with," he says.

Griffin is far from the only former Western Washington journalist who's gone to the dark side. The crossovers seem to be everywhere: local and state government agencies, corporations large and small, nonprofit organizations, industry front groups, their own PR firms—you name it. They've come from everywhere, too: big-city and small-town newspapers, television and radio stations, even the publication you're now reading.

And Griffin is far from the only former journalist who's gone to work for the very organization he or she once covered. Just a few weeks ago, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Pacific Rim reporter, Imbert Matthee, took a PR job with the Port of Seattle. It seems unlikely that Matthee's press releases and guest editorials will deviate significantly from the series of articles he wrote in March about a trade delegation's trip to Singapore. Of the five articles, only three even make reference to Singapore's iron-fisted government—a titular democracy where leaders frequently sue political opponents to squelch free speech and detain citizens without trial for up to two years. Matthee characterized Singapore's citizens as more inconvenienced than oppressed, and suggested—in his own words—that Seattle-area officials could learn from how Singapore "promotes consensus" by "discouraging public participation." (See "High Bias," SW, 4/16.)

The list goes on and on. Steve Kipp, formerly the News Tribune's King County government reporter, worked for the King County Council before moving to TCI Cable. Other News Tribune defectors include Jerry Pugnetti (state auditor's office), Dan Voelpel (city of Tacoma), Jeff Weathersby (state Fish & Wildlife Department), and Dave Workman (state Natural Resources Department). TNT's Debbie Cafazzo tried flacking for Seattle Public Utilities recently but the transplant didn't take, and she returned to journalism. "I'm scrupulously honest," she explained.

Then there's the "KIRO mafia"—folks who have gone from holding microphones to talking into them: Frank Abe (for Gary Locke, Ron Sims), John Chelminiak (Tim Hill, King County Council), Carolyn Duncan (Locke, King County government), Rebecca Hale (Norm Rice, Seattle Police Department), Nick Krivokopich (King County Council), and Dan Leach (Port of Seattle). Hale's defection represented no great loss to the news biz. She admitted at a recent industry forum that, while working at KIRO, "I didn't necessarily think that what I was doing was important—or even journalism."

The notion of reporters going into PR is worrisome on many levels. But what news consumers should be most concerned about is this: Probably no one is better at making reporters believe they're actually getting the whole story than a journalist who has crossed over to the dark side—especially one like Hale, who doesn't seem to see any difference between the two jobs.

Loose change

Hopeful founders of a new pirate radio station are hosting a benefit Friday (July 10) at the Elysian, 1221 E Pike, at 9:30pm. Pay $5, see three bands, and help FREE Radio Seattle get its signal off the ground.... Last December I criticized Entercom—the Philadelphia-based media giant that owns eight local radio stations—for backing East Coast charities to the exclusion of Seattle-area ones. Turns out that, among other initiatives, the company airs public-service announcements for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and supports hunger-prevention programs. Good effort!

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow