It is no accident that our modern author most revered for his insights into authoritarianism also supplies the best ever quote about newspapers. George Orwell was himself a journalist prior to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, his chilling and depressingly relevant masterpiece about a totalitarian state where the government exercises complete control over printed information. Prior to adopting his now famous pseudonym, the author, whose real name was Eric Blair, was also a police officer in what was then the British colony of Burma, a position that gave him direct experience with armed authority over a subjugated population.
The title of OC Register columnist David Whiting’s recent story about police public relations firm Behind the Badge should recall Mr. Orwell’s definition of journalism. His June 20 column, Revealing what’s ‘Behind the Badge’: Paid for by police and taxpayers, but how much does that matter?” is undoubtably a reaction to a story from the Voice of OC website by Thy Vo, published on June 1, entitled Website Blurs Line Between Journalism and PR.The Rag, of course, brought this issue to light way back on December 12, 2013, in a post entitled The OC Register and Fullerton Police, Partners in Propaganda. We pointed out that the Fullerton Police Department was paying a public relations company called Cornerstone Communications, who publishes a website called Behind the Badge OC, to write positive stories about the FPD, and that the OC Register was uncritically publishing those stories with inadequate acknowledgment to readers that they were generated by a paid PR firm led by former OC Register reporter Bill Rams.
Even the Register’s own David Medzerian later called for the Behind the Badge website to carry “a more prominent disclaimer so readers know who’s paying for it” in a March 29, 2015 column called What’s hidden ‘Behind the Badge’?
And why should we taxpayers be funding a public relations firm to write stories about our own police department, when that department’s union actively funds the campaigns of candidates for Fullerton City Council?
This brazenly political effort to improve the image of the FPD goes back to a 2012 report produced by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review (OIR) about the state of the Fullerton Police Department in the wake of the beating death of the schizophrenic homeless Kelly Thomas the previous year. In that report the OIR recommended that the Fullerton Police Department communicate better with the public following “incidents”. Was hiring a PR firm to do nothing but write rosy stories about police what they had in mind?
Some may agree that using a PR firm might be a good example of outsourcing specialized skills to private sector professionals, but one has to question the intent of the contract with Cornerstone Communications and the results of their work. Shouldn’t the purpose of the PR work be to better inform Fullerton residents about their police department’s actions? At the very least, we should feel like we know something more about how police operate in our community.
David Whiting’s recent column quotes Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes as justifying the expense: “The community wants to know their police department better,” and “These stories are an extremely effective way to communicate.”
Communicate what? Readers of Behind the Badge won’t find valuable insights about how police work in their city. Instead, the site’s Fullerton page is loaded with stories about remembering a long dead officer, a profile of a volunteer senior citizen, the Special Olympics, and (no kidding) the FPD being honored at a kickball match. These stories are grouped under the “features” heading, but dominate the page, with accompanying pictures, while the “news” section has only one story that might actually qualify as news. Nowhere to be found, for example, is a report on the annual audit of the FPD by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review, which would make a really good news story that would be of great interest to Fullerton residents.
Behind the Badge’s Fullerton page also has a link that is supposed to lead directly to the FPD’s own website, but at press time it led here:The link (perhaps repaired by the time you read this post) is supposed to lead to the FPD’s own website, replete with more Behind the Badge generated pabulum for your consumption.
David Whiting’s recent column asks, pointlessly, whether or not what Cornerstone Communications produces is journalism. Columbia University Professor Susan McGregor has an answer for him: ‘“It sounds like the structure is designed to skew in a direction,” McGregor allows. “Then it’s just another way of doing public relations.”’
Thy Vo’s Voice of OC story quotes USC journalism Professor Marc Cooper as saying “what you’ve got here is a cereal commercial, a piece of uncritical advertising that is going to convince absolutely nobody who isn’t already convinced.” Which is exactly why Bill Rams and his cohorts find it necessary to place their PR stories in actual newspapers (ok, we’ll call it that) like the OC Register, where Mr. Rams is identified only as a “guest columnist” who owns a “communications company” with specified police department clients. Any reputable newspaper would simply run the story under the heading “Paid Advertisement” unless they weren’t being paid, in which case they shouldn’t run it at all, and leave writing about the police to their staff writers—those who haven’t already fled to write for PR firms like Cornerstone.
It’s also why the taxpayers of Fullerton are being ripped off. Even if anyone thought the FPD spending between “$ 2,000 and $ 5,000” a month to have positively-skewed stories about their own police department regurgitated back to them was a good idea, they might reasonably question the effectiveness of the whole enterprise in the first place. The Voice of OC has Prof. Cooper doubting that Behind the Badge will have “any impact at all.” But perhaps Prof. Cooper misses the point of the whole endeavor.
The goal of the FPD outsourcing public communications was never to improve communication between the police and the public they serve. The goal was to keep the Fullerton City Council from creating an Independent Police Commission that might foster actual communication between the FPD and the public. In order to achieve that goal the FPD had to wipe the mud from its name following the death of Kelly Thomas at the hands of FPD officers and other ugly revelations about the department so that their union endorsement would register as a positive in the minds of enough voters to back their candidates in City Council elections. They managed it barely in 2012 with their endorsed candidate Jan Flory’s 29 vote finish ahead of police critic incumbent Travis Kiger, who had been elected just six months prior in a recall election that was all but disastrous for the FPD. Their strategy proved to be effective when the trio of Jan Flory, Doug Chaffee, and Jennifer Fitzgerald* (joined by Greg Sebourn) utterly rejected a citizen-produced plan for actual oversight in favor of hiring the Office of Independent Review for periodic and incomplete audits of the FPD.
For the combined money spent on paying Cornerstone and Michael Gennaco’s OIR, the city could hire the investigators who only might be required by an Independent Police Commission. Instead, precious taxpayer dollars are paid to a PR firm to serve the interests of the police department itself, contributing nothing to public safety.
In his column, David Whiting acknowledges that “as with other public relations specialists, Rams has suggested column ideas to me and I have pursued some.” Journalists are always being courted by PR specialists to write stories benefiting their clients. What’s remarkable about Mr. Whiting is that he evidently listens to them, demonstrating the kind of relationship with a PR firm that we should find unacceptable with a politician, and unprofessional in a journalist.
“Regardless, the backers of Behind the Badge are right about the need for better connections between police and public,” concludes David Whiting, who doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that those connections might otherwise come from honest journalism in a newspaper or on a news website instead of a one-sided public relations website. Readers of the OC Register should expect the former, while Fullerton taxpayers should be outraged that they are paying for the latter. Hucksters of “hybrid journalism,” as Behind the Badge’s Bill Rams calls it, can make a living as best they can, but you and I shouldn’t have to support them. The City Council should act to end this contract with Cornerstone Communications as quickly as possible and simply require the Fullerton Police Department to be honest, timely, and transparent in communications with the city’s residents.
*Mayor Pro Tem Jennifer Fitzgerald, who is herself Vice President of the public relations firm Curt Pringle & Associates, routinely supports the police department without any funding from the Fullerton Police Officers Association, thereby keeping them from opposing her campaigns while simultaneously preserving her Republican anti-union funding credentials.
Note: This post was updated on June 11 to correct typographical errors and to add an image of David Whiting’s recent column.