Fake News & Public Relations

I’ve worked both sides of the street — journalist and PR guy. Actually, three sides — teacher. So perhaps there aren’t only two sides to this story.

But it’s less of a story than an disagreement as to what counts as news. Take today, for example. It’s President Obama’s 48th birthday. Is that news? Well, sort of. As the McCain presidential campaign liked to remind us, Obama is a celebrity, and from a certain perspective celebrities are news. What they say, what they do, and what happens to them, including their birthdays.

True, some of the press coverage of Obama’s birthday offered another kind of numerical angle. The president bowled a 144, which in itself could be cause for celebration following the cringe-worthy 37 he rolled during the campaign. President Cool didn’t look comfortable throwing out the first pitch in the recent baseball All Star game. In the era before sensitivity training, gender neutrality and political correctness, it would have been thought — if not reported — that the president threw like a girl.

Not that girls —  I mean, women — don’t show up on cable TV winging softballs from the pitcher’s mound at lightning speed in softball games —  the equivalent of 95 mph heat from Josh Beckett.

There. I think I’ve avoided slipping on the gendered banana peel that helped finish off the brief, unhappy Harvard University presidential tenure of Larry Summers.

But I digress. Obama’s birthday is news. So is his bowling score. All birthdays are equal, but some are more equal than others.

All right, here’s example 2. This week marks the 40th “anniversary” (shouldn’t the word be in quotes?) of the Manson gang’s murders of the actress, Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski, the movie director. The kill-the-pigs, helter-skelter homicides — Tate was very pregnant — was certainly front-page news at the tail end of the tie-dyed, acid-dropping, anti-establishment Sixties. Shortly after the Tate murders, the Manson gang, starring several young females whom Manson had somehow turned into the cast of Saw 5, there  was more murderous news — this time the killings of someone the tabloids called “a wealthy grocer” and his wife.

All that terrifying stuff was news back then. But is it news now? Apparently, yes — at least it made it to CNN. But doesn’t everything? Didn’t those wild and crazy Raelians — the Word of Rael! — manage to make it onto CNN some years ago?

This is the age of marketing, of the visual, of the spectacle, of the amateur, of YouTube.  Every day, it seems, someone or something goes viral, and to go viral is to make news. My 3-year-old Siamese cats, Sadie and Clara, went viral a few months ago, when my wife posted their photo on Twitpic. All of a sudden, tens, hundreds, and then 5,000 unique viewers got wind of the adorable creatures who appeared to be attempting to articulate their thoughts on Twitter. Their insta-fame merited an email from Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter, who said he was sending out Sadie and Clara’s picture to his l65,000 twitter followers.

When your cats make news, it’s a clue that there’s something going on, something up in the news world.

If news is what people are talking about, then with 200 million of us talking and pixing and texting and tweeting and writing on each other’s walls, it’s time for a broader, if not deeper, definition of news.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Public Relations

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