Jun 19, 2009
Former CNN correspondent-turned-PR consultant Gene Randall's video "report"
for oil giant Chevron might be unprecedented for how it blurred the
line between public relations and journalism. But the Randall-Chevron
production raises not only ethical questions, but also the question of
whether a surge of newly pink-slipped reporters might go, as one media
critic put it, "over to the dark side" and how that might further muddy
the line between news and corporate advocacy.
As detailed in a recent New York Times article, when Chevron, America's third largest corporation, heard that 60 Minutes
was preparing a report about the $27 billion lawsuit filed against it
for allegedly contaminating the Ecuador region of the Amazon rain
forest, Chevron hired former TV newsman Randall to craft a video from
the corporation's perspective, which was posted on YouTube and
Chevron's Web site three weeks before the 60 Minutesreport aired on May 3.
60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley's investigation
presented multiple perspectives while Randall's included only Chevron
officials and consultants. Everyone interviewed in Randall's piece, in
other words, was paid by Chevron, including Randall himself.
Randall's video also clearly strives to resemble an authentic news
report, employing classic stylistic TV news techniques, while never
informing the viewer it's a Chevron production. Most deceptive,
however, is that Randall-looking like the consummate TV newsman-begins
the video with the accompanying graphic "Gene Randall Reporting" and
concludes with the voiceover: "This is Gene Randall reporting."
Yet Randall, who was laid off from CNN in 2001 and runs the corporate consulting firm Gene Randall Enterprises, told The New York Times,
"This is not a news report. This is a client hiring a provider to tell
its side of the story." Moreover, speaking with the National Journal
Online, he said,
"I don't portray it as a piece of journalism, but I used journalistic
techniques in telling Chevron's side of the story." (Reached by phone,
Randall declined to comment for this article.)
Author and media critic Norman Solomon thought it was absolutely
"deceptive" for Randall "to sign off with the claim that he's been
"And the whole effort by Chevron is just another attempt at media
spin by a huge corporation with plenty to hide - with the added twist
of hiring a former journalist to implicitly pretend that he's being a
journalist while flaking for Chevron to defend the indefensible,"
Solomon wrote in an e-mail interview.
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a
non-profit journalism training center in Florida, agreed that Randall's
use of the word "reporting" in the video was clearly intended to
"I guarantee you that is intentional," McBride said in a phone
interview. "He was hired to imitate journalism and that's what he did."
Yet she was not surprised to see it and expected such techniques to
become increasingly prevalent because of today's ease of distribution.
"You can just put it up on YouTube now and if you can get it to go
viral, you can easily trick your audience into thinking this is an
authentic news report," said McBride.
Steve Rendall, senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting,
a national media watch group, found Randall's defense "disingenuous"
and a distortion of the truth. "He is technically using some
journalistic techniques...but in a selective and biased way," Rendall
explained in a phone interview.
Solomon also saw Randall's approach as part of a broader effort by
Chevron to exploit the air of credibility that journalism and venerable
news outlets can lend, pointing to its relationship with PBS's NewsHour:
"Under Jim Lehrer, the NewsHour takes big bucks from
Chevron and then allows Chevron to be, in effect, part of the program
every night - presenting itself as imbued with a civic spirit,
environmentally committed, noble and all-around good neighbors of
everyone on the planet."
McBride said that as more corporations begin to package public
relations and publicity messages in news formats, unemployed
journalists flocking to corporate PR jobs are not the only cause for
"Even if we weren't having the economic crisis in journalism...but we
still had the same opening of the floodgates of information [via online
social media], I think that it would be happening," McBride explained.
Rendall hopes that "media economics would not cause an exodus of
journalists going over to the dark side" but believes "it's inevitable
that we'll see some of that."
Whatever the future holds, McBride said, "As a society we are going
to have to educate ourselves about what's really news and what is
information that's meant to do something different than news."
With a burgeoning army of out-of-work journalists to lure with
lucrative PR contracts and the simultaneous explosion of viral media,
corporations are well positioned to gain from journalism's loss.
A legion of Gene Randalls "reporting" is certainly an unsettling future.
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