Sunday, September 20, 2009

journalism in crisis...

A while ago I had heard Bill Moyers speech regarding "Journalism in Profound Crisis". I knew the dangers, but today the full weight of his speech hit me while reading a very tame and completely unrelated "news" article linked from a friend's facebook account.

The story, which appeared on the headline Business section of on Sept 20th, outlines how a family recovered from $100,000 debt in 5 years to be debt free and happier and more responsible than they had been. At first, I thought it was just an uplifting story... but then I started to notice some odd things about the story: for one, it was copyright by Second, the story disclosed that the family had won a PACE award which was judged by one of's senior reporters.

Since when do private credit card companies hire reporters?
"How many other news stories are really embedded corporate press releases?"
The story explains that the family was holding even until "credit card companies [began] raising their interest rates" even though the family had been current on all their bills. Credit card companies proactively raising their rates has been described elsewhere as a response to the Card Accountability and Disclosure Act (CARD) and the state of the economy in general. identifies itself as a broker between consumers and credit card companies. So it has a vested interest in protecting the interests of credit card companies who are it's customers.

While other stories have focused on the unfairness of raising rates for consumers who have always paid their bills on time, the story quietly bypasses whether the rate increases were fair or just, and just commends the family for paying their debts without raising a fuss.

This is brilliant marketing, but is it news?

What's shocking isn't the story they wrote, or that they are one of MSNBC's advertising sponsors, it is that their "story" appeared as headline business news on, a company that touts itself as "one of the most honored news organizations." Ordinarily this kind of PR story appears (or is credited) exactly where it belongs, on PR Newswire. The fact that it was published as a story subject to the same journalistic integrity that is so proud of is deeply disturbing.

How many other news stories are really embedded corporate press releases?

Bill Moyers wasn't kidding about the threat to journalism. The internet gives us a lot of power to write and read stories almost as they happen. But it also gives corporations the power to pretend to be journalists without fully disclosing their motives.