Just Say No

I don’t plan to read Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff any time soon. (To confess, Jonathan Eig’s bio of Muhammad Ali is my current sustenance.)

Yes, Wolff’s content, and his uncommitted relationship with accuracy, has caused its own firestorm. For me, however, the lessons to be learned are in public relations, not narrative pseudo-journalism.

Mistake #1: Wolff’s White House access, which created much of the book’s tastiest morsels, seems to be the result of organizational chaos (the Trump White House’s sustenance). With no clear permission or denial, and a vague endorsement from Trump, Wolff was granted access to observe, while Bannon assumed Priebus approved, while Priebus assumed Kushner … , etc.

A clear center of decision-making authority in these access requests, though an impossibility in the Trump White House, is the remedy.

While it’s disturbing to consider that these political professionals were more concerned with their own survival than the President or the country, such is the amoral worst of high-level politics.

It should not be accepted as reasonable, professional behavior, regardless of how close to the apex of political power it occurs.

Mistake #2: A peremptory Internet search would have alerted Trump’s White House staff that Wolff was not a good fly-on-the-wall candidate.  His take-down pieces on everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Christopher Hitchens were there for the Googling.

In 1990, I was director of public information for Azusa Pacific University. A local news radio personality asked if we were interested in hosting a discussion of Malathion, a controversial insecticide being sprayed to control an invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies. Sounded good, so I agreed.

The personality, it turned out, was shock jock Tom Leykis, at his last stop before nationwide syndication. I should have known better, but I didn’t.

Alerted by a frantic APU alum, I turned on Leykis to hear him announce the anti-Malathion rally at Azusa Pacific, timed for an actual spraying. Attendees would stand in the open and dare the helicopters to spray them. Standard academic discourse.

After I canceled the “rally,” Leykis characterized my reversal as a weak-spined concession to alumni pressure. I suppose that was charitable, considering the real reason was my inept unprofessional stupidity.

In the same way, allowing an author like Wolff such access is a doubly-incompetent media relations breakdown by the White House, thus creating an avoidable public image crisis.

My master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton is in public relations, particularly agenda building in the media, and many of my students are public relations majors. I try to pass along advice to them from my experience and studies, while teaching them their required journalism courses.

The best advice I give them overall is, “just say no.” They don’t have to do journalists’ jobs for them (echoing journalists’ complaint that they don’t do law enforcement’s work for them, either). PR folks don’t have to allow journalists access to private property, even if a crime is being investigated. And they certainly don’t have to give a best-selling author access to secure government offices, due diligent Googling or not.

Sure, overall, they will do their organizations wisely by counseling access at appropriate times and not locking down the media 100 percent. It’s a tough balance to work out, but it’s possible.

Their main responsibility is to their organization, however, and an automatic “yes” to media access can cause much more damage than an initial “no”–as the Bannon-Priebus-Kushner brain trust demonstrated in creating this Fire and Fury.

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When to Panic

When the recent ESPN report on Auburn came out, it was quickly accompanied by the usual wailing and gnashing and harbinging of doom.

The article did catch my attention, I’ll admit. But before I reacted, I decided to read through it. Then I read through it again.

My response?

At least for now, that restraint was justified, as no new developments emerged to increase the need for panic.

But rather than go deep on one article, I’ll explain the info standards I follow before inducing panic using several examples. Yes, some stories have sent me into a funk. Others pass without justifying much beyond a shrug and a shake of the head.

So here is a guide on when to panic and when to shrug.

I. Single anonymous source: Attention only

This applies both to this week’s story and to Kevin Scarbinsky’s story about a conference call to fire Jay Jacobs.  Anonymous sourcing is allowed within ethical journalism, but the accepted standard is two anonymous sources.

Scarbinsky’s article relied on one anonymous source. Regardless of how credible that source might be, it’s safer to get two, even if one merely confirms the information without adding to it.

So while I found the Scarbinsky article interesting, if objectionable on other grounds, I adopted the wait and see attitude.  What we saw was a denial from Auburn President Dr. Steven Leath and nothing further.

Similarly, the ESPN report included one anonymous source. I did note that Auburn itself served as the other source, confirming the situation, but that’s an unusual case.

That Auburn would confirm it, rather than offer the “personnel issues” perceived stonewall, was also a source of assurance on the story for Auburn fans, but that’s another interesting side to it.

It seems that the Auburn athletics department has followed a strategy of “aggressive transparency” on certain stories, similar to their response when Shawn Assael of ESPN focused on Dakota Mosley, in his article on the 2011 arrest of four Auburn players.

When they have nothing to hide, they don’t act like they do.  They seem to realize that in such cases, openness solves more problems than a stonewalling approach avoids.

II. Named source/AU beat involvement: Moderate concern

Now, when a source is willing to openly attach his/her name to information, that takes it to a different level (and a single credible named source is acceptable in such cases).

The individual might have an unfair ax to grind, but when they grind the ax publicly, it takes the concern to a higher level.

I think about the 2006 NY Times report about the misuse of sociology independent studies.  Jim Gundlach, a sociology professor, was credited as the source of the information.  And ultimately it was worth worrying about.

This was an important story, and for all the grief he received, I give Dr. Gundlach a lot of credit for bringing it to light.  It was a UNC-level academic problem that needed to be addressed, and it was appropriately problematic for Auburn’s academic reputation. (Yes, I will die on this hill.)

So when that story came out, yes, it deserved our attention. It was bad. As I recall, I first heard about it on the WSFA evening news (this was 2006, after all), and I realized I was eventually standing in front of the TV and yelling at it.

Another consideration: take note of how the Auburn beat writers follow up on the story. Auburn is blessed with some top-notch journalism pros covering the athletics programs.

I know fans wish they would be as passive as the beat writers covering other CFB programs.  But given their aggressiveness (which ultimately is a positive), their response to such stories will let you know if something is there.

When such stories come out, regardless, all of the Auburn outlets will link to it and summarize it. They’re expected to, even if the process seems like a waste of time.

They might add an official reply from Athletics or Auburn University, but beyond that, they don’t consider the juice worth the squeeze.  That is an indication of how far the story could go and could allay your fears.

Now, if their reporting starts to uncover their own layers to the story, you might want to pay attention.  The concern level is likely to rise from moderate and approach panic.

III. Indictments/arrests: Panic

When the U.S. Attorney’s office in NYC announced that Chuck Person was indicted on a variety of charges, yeah, it was bad.  I won’t go much beyond that in discussing this case, since much is yet to be revealed.

No one knows where that case is going to end up, but yeah–when it reaches that stage, it’s bad. It’s for real.

So how to respond?

I did see a lot of anger and frustration once the ESPN report published. As time went on, and the first wave was the only wave, it was replaced by indignation and anger directed at the writers, particularly Mark Schlabach (some of it justified, but not all of it fair).

My main concern is when we assign face value to such journalistic transactions, and it overvalues the information given.

If it doesn’t involve federal or state charges or a named source, it might be worth waiting on.  That way, if it goes no further, you’ll ride a straight line from mellow to mellow, with no frantic, unnecessary up-then-down detour in between.

Seeing Through the Players Tribune

As a recent Mashable article noted, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about the Players Tribune.

Derek Jeter’s sports website has become a powerhouse, attracting audiences and investors with its promise of content produced by an impressive roster of superstar athletes.

The website’s concept, however, is nothing new.  It has merely refined the ethically iffy practice of ghostwriting.

Since the late 19th century, newspapers realized that articles “written” by athletes would attract readers eager to get closer to superstar athletes and their thoughts.

As the United States left World War I behind and plunged into the Jazz Age, Christy Walsh–probably the first true sports agent–took ghostwriting to a new level, matching sportswriters with the iconic sports celebrities of the age (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne) to generate copy and lots of money.

Jeter’s site certainly takes the athletes’ contribution more seriously than did Walsh, who bragged about the deceptiveness of his practice. (Sometimes his athletes never saw what went out under their “bylines.”)

However, Walsh and Jeter do share one practice in common:  The professional(s) providing the help for the athletes get zero credit.

Players Tribune gives the impression that the contribution is 100 percent the players’ words–unfiltered, as Jeter is fond of saying.

Of course, no one 100 percent believes that. Nor did they back in the early days of ghostwriting.

It’s nothing against the athletes themselves. Writing, like anything, is a craft that takes practice and a little skill. It’s no shame to need help with it.

A good editor can identify a lead and make a written piece flow better. All those Web pages and videos don’t create themselves.

Why, then, won’t Players Tribune give those trained professionals the “as told to” credit they deserve, for the work everyone knows they are doing?

Note: Don’t go telling me that this is not true journalism, that it’s a form of public relations, and that PR staff don’t get credit. Jeter promotes this as a form of journalism, with the same benefits to a trusting audience.

And since Jeter and his staff are practicing a form of journalism, they should be aware of the rules of that game, and the fair play that is expected.

The ethical concept of “transparency” is a fairly recent addition to the canons of journalism, the result of the changes wrought to the profession and industry by the Internet, and of the same decline in respect for journalism that fueled projects like Players Tribune.

As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics describes the concept, transparency involves explaining processes and decisions to the public, particularly as they relate to ethics.

As it relates to The Players Tribune, everyone knows the process requires the involvement of a professional staff, so give them credit, Derek.

They’ve taken steps in that direction.  Last year, the Players Tribune added a staff page, titled, “The Team” (and isn’t it awesome to see Walter Iooss Jr. listed as a “photographer-at-large” there).

But it’s up to Jeter and his site to raise their game. They need to credit the individual contributions of these professionals who help create the memorable stories of The Players Tribune.

When Sports Illustrated got the exclusive to LeBron James’ 2014 announcement, “I’m Coming Home,” James and SI also credited Lee Jenkins, who helped James write it.

Such credit recognizes that journalism is also a team sport, with its superstars and its role players, its coaches and trainers.

So be a team player, Derek; give your teammates all the credit they deserve.