“Don’t Take No From Someone Who Isn’t Empowered To Say Yes”

My friend Allison used the quote in the headline this weekend when we were teaching her daughter/my goddaughter how to negotiate for better prices at a flea market in South Haven, Michigan. It turned out to be a golden bit of advice she learned from Peter Greenberg, a Emmy-award-winning journalist who was talking to the students at our old college newspaper.

Here’s the story as relayed by Allison (Greenberg himself recalled this story during a guest appearance on the “Destination Everywhere” Podcast):

Greenberg was explaining how to get an important story and how to persist when people didn’t want to be helpful.

He wanted access to a nuclear attack sub as part of a story he was working on. This was in the late 1980s when this was happening, which happened to be when we were still in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so letting a journalist wander around a nuclear sub was laughable at best.

Greenberg kept poking at Naval officials for access, each one basically telling him, “There is no way this is happening.” At one point he asked, “OK, if this COULD be done, who would be the one person who could allow it to happen?” It turned out to be the commander-in-chief in the Pacific, stationed in Pearl Harbor.

Greenberg got the Navy to agree to give him the meeting, which was supposed to be kind of a 10-minute, “we had a meeting” meeting. Instead, Greenberg noticed a photo of a ship on the admiral’s wall and Greenberg knew a lot about that particular ship. Instead of talking about sub access, they started talking about the boat. By the time the 10 minutes had ended, the admiral invited Greenberg to lunch and eventually granted him the permission he sought.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes,'” he told the group.

At the heart of his story were three key things that can be helpful to you as a journalist:

TAKE A SHOT: When Greenberg kept hearing “no,” he asked for a meeting that the people essentially told him wasn’t going to lead anywhere. In the podcast mentioned earlier in this post, Greenberg said the people setting up the meeting for him basically asked him why he’d want to fly all the way to Pearl Harbor just to hear “no” from one more person. He figured he had nothing at this point, so he might as well take a shot in person with the one person who could get him what he needed. What was the worst thing that could happen? He might have no story and a case of jet lag and that’s about it.

If the story is important enough to you, you need to take a shot at it before deciding it’s not going to happen. You never know what you might get if you give up before you give it a chance to succeed.

FIND COMMON GROUND: The thing that made this work was a bit of serendipity. If the admiral had a picture of a sunset, a poster of Porsche or a velvet Elvis on his wall, Greenberg might have not found his in. However, as he explained in the podcast, he realized he needed a connection and he found it:

They gave me a ten-minute appointment at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday. I flew up on a Saturday. I walked in to see him. He could care less about me. I was told to have a meeting. He didn’t want to be there. It was an office the size of Grand Central Station. Everybody was in their dress whites. They didn’t want me to be there. It was like a courtesy call, give him a commemorative coin and get him out.

This is the difference. You seek out common ground and I knew that I had maybe fifteen seconds to figure out what the common ground was. I got lucky because behind his desk was a photograph of a boat and it turned out I knew the boat well.

I said to him, “Is that a Bertram 31?” He said, “Damn straight.” I said, “That’s the best boat they ever built.” He said, “You’re not kidding?” I said, “Let me guess. When you make a hard right turn, the engine cavitates and the water pump overflows?” He goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Here’s how you fix it. You’re going to do a bypass on the impeller.”

We start talking like that and ten minutes later, the officer is going to say, “Admiral, your time is up.” He looked at me and said, “Do you got lunch plans?” I said, “I’m all yours.”

<SNIP>

That’s called chutzpah and luck.

If I’d walked into his office for that ten-minute meeting, he’s like, “Can I go on a sub?” “Get the hell out of here.”

You want to look for ways to connect with a source during an interview. That’s why doing it in person is often so valuable. You can look around and see things that they have around them to help you size up your subject. Starting with a discussion about a picture or a plaque or even a baseball card they have on display can get you an “in” that makes them see you as a kindred spirit as opposed to a pain the butt.

GO TO WHO CAN SAY YES: I think I’m going to use that quote with every interviewing class for as long as I live now, in that it perfectly captures what we should be doing when it comes to getting key information.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes'” is simple, direct and yet amazingly mind-blowing, as it dawns on me that I’ve probably failed in this regard myriad times in my journalism career and my daily life.

When you want permission for something, you need to go to the person who can grant it. Unfortunately, there are often underlings, minions and other pencil-pushers who get put in your path and try to dissuade you from getting that permission. If it’s important enough for you to pursue that permission, get past those people and go find the person who is empowered to grant it.

Like many things, this can be taken too far or in the wrong way. I am in no way saying you should become the snotty person who is holding up the line at the store, loudly proclaiming, “I need to speak to your manager!” because the bananas are ringing up at 39 cents per pound when the sign clearly said 36 cents per pound. However, I am saying most folks take the first “no” as a reason to give up far too easily.

Find the person empowered to say yes and see what that person says. If it’s still “no” at least you’ll know that nobody else is getting your story. If it’s “yes,” you got what you came here to get.

Advice, reflections and things to consider for students: Transitioning Careers from News to PR, Part IV

(Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

If you missed them, here are the first three pieces:

To close up this look at the news-to-PR transition, I wanted the folks to give the students some advice or some observations they had regarding where their journeys took them in the field. The line of “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” seemed apropos, so I wanted to hear what these folks learned between knowing what they were SURE they were going to do when they left college and what life actually brought them:

 

A 25-year marketing vet who spent 10 years in news before making the shift had a broad sense of what was in the field and what students should know:

“One thing I’d tell current students in the Journalism field is that the field is ever-evolving. It’s important to remain adaptable with your skills and your mindset. The thing you start doing right out of college will likely be very different from what you retire from, but the storytelling will always remain. Storytelling has been the one constant in all of Journalism and its various offshoots.”

 

A content manager for a firm that specializes in thought leadership looked at this from both ends of the discussion:

To news kids: Don’t be snobby about an entire profession. Careers are long and you might end up doing PR for a while because the skills you’re learning are transferable. Oh, and the talk about PR people not working hard – complete and utter nonsense. If you want to stay in news, pick an area or specialty (either topical or in approach) and stick with. GA reporters are a dime a dozen. Not picking an area of focus is probably my biggest regret. I was so focused on the basic skills of journalism that I didn’t really get to know topics.

To PR kids: The value of journalism goes well beyond advancing the interests of whomever you represent. PR and journalism shouldn’t be symbiotic, but they CAN help each other. The news media serves a vital purpose and is getting attacked by people who seem to think authoritarianism is better than democracy. PR people should understand the importance of good reporters and editors in a free society and do what they can to help.

 

A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said the things she learned in a newsroom made her a better practitioner in her current job:

“Working in newspapers gave me a unique set of skills and experiences I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else.

“Content marketing is filled with bullshit artists. Having newsroom experience on my resume gives me credibility that would’ve taken much longer to earn, had I started my career in marketing.”

 

A VP who serves as a content strategist at a major financial firm had the most amazingly honest and totally straightforward advice:

“Media is an incredibly small world. You’re going to run into people over and over again throughout your career. So don’t be a dick.

“That obnoxious PR person who wants you to cover their brand? They may be the mayor’s PR person 5 years from now. So be friendly. And honestly? Cover the dumb stories from time to time. If your audience finds it interesting, you did your job, and you probably made a solid PR relationship along the way.”

 

A marketing and PR practitioner who graduated during the 2010s planned to spend her whole life in news. When it didn’t happen, she realized a few things:

“When I was in college, I was 100% sure I was going to be in print journalism forever. If you would’ve told me I’d be working in marketing, I probably would’ve laughed. Little did I know, that was just the first stepping stone of my career. That being said, here’s what I’d tell students today:

  • Get involved in student media and extracurriculars. I learned more from those “in the trenches” experiences alongside my peers in the newsroom than I did in a classroom. It gave me a chance to try new things and put my skills into action. Plus, the people I worked with there are still friends, colleagues, and references.
  • Just because your major is “journalism” doesn’t mean that’s your only option. I used to think that if I was a journalism major, I would only be qualified to be a reporter. Professors aren’t lying when they say the skills are transferable.
  • Journalism isn’t dying. It’s actually a really exciting time to pursue a journalism or journalism-adjacent career, in my opinion. There are new platforms emerging and new stories to tell every day. We will always need people with the ability to tell those stories — and that’s what the skills you’re learning allow you to do. “

Do you have the skills to pay the bills when you change fields? Transitioning Careers from News to PR, Part III

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

In case you missed it, here’s part I. And here’s part II.

If I had a dollar for every time a student asked me in an exasperated voice, “Why do I need this stuff? I’m going into (fill in the field they plan to enter)!” I’d never need to work again.

The analogy I use as an answer is this: I’m putting tools in your toolbox that you’ll likely need in that field and pretty much anywhere else you’ll go in journalism. You might not use them every day, and you might use them in a different way, but they’re tools you’ll be glad you have eventually.

To what degree I’m right has often been a mystery. Sure, former students sometimes send notes or emails or texts and tell me that they’re still using these skills, even as they move from Job X to Job Y to Career Change 1 to Career Change 2. That said, there are days I wonder if I’m flying blind.

I asked the folks nice enough to talk to me about their career transitions from news to PR if the tools we put in their toolboxes in college really helped or if they had to do a serious course correction once they changed jobs.

The answers vary, but for the most part, it sounds like we’re being pretty successful.

A former broadcaster and college media adviser who works in public affairs and public relations probably captured it best:

“I honestly don’t think the skills are all that different though – it’s all about writing. In PA/PR, it’s just that we tend to focus on the positive. But we also have to deal with the negative. The biggest difference is that when we go negative, it’s framed in the best possible light instead of just giving the facts. Like you, I went to school when we were all pretty siloed. And I was hard core news. But in the end, it’s all about the words. And that is a skill that easily translates.”

 

A marketing pro with 25 years of experience in the field said her news background gave her not only the ability to work with words, but the sense of how best to use them when she moved to PR:

“The skills I learned in college related to news writing certainly transferred into all that I’ve done. Learning how to tell a story with all the right parts was the very basis of everything I’ve done all these years. Those skills were honed and expanded upon as I took each new job in my 25+ year career.”

Knowing how to tell a story was about half of what people said they learned. The other half was learning how to tell that story to a specific audience. In other words, instead of following the model of “Here’s what I want to tell you,” these professionals learned the “How can I tell you what you want to know in the best way possible?” approach.

A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said she developed her audience-centric approach in her last stop in her news career:

“The skills 100% transfer. Everything I learned from my 6 years in journalism provided that bridge into marketing, and continues to provide a unique skill set that has served me well on this side of the fence.

“My last position in journalism was an engagement editor, where among other responsibilities, I lead the newsroom’s social media efforts. This experience landed me a position in social media at a marketing agency. After that first position, having a solid background in journalism gave me an edge for several copywriting/content-focused roles, including one where I lead content marketing for all of the agency’s clients.

“Journalism taught me how to engage an audience and tell a story, along with mass communication skills. Those skills (along with having newsrooms on my resume) have put me at an advantage in every single position I have worked in since leaving the newsroom.”

A VP who serves as a content strategist at a major financial firm said she learned a lot in school and as a news journalist that transferred to her new position. Even more, she said she continues to ask questions about how best to serve her readers every time she plies her trade:

“The skills totally transfer. Knowing how to talk to people, keep a conversation going, get people to talk, find the interesting nugget, etc. is helpful in any job or really any life situation. I always say that between my journalism career and then agency career, I’ve covered just about every industry, which is great for dinner parties! I may not be an expert in, say, fiber optic cables, but I worked on a brand that creates them, and if fiber optics happen to come up in conversation, I know enough to jump in and sound half intelligent.

“Learning how to communicate to your audience is probably the top skill I’ve used consistently throughout my career. You don’t really think about it in straight news as much, but you learn it instinctively – always asking yourself: Will the audience care about this? Do I need to explain this concept or will doing that insult their intelligence? Is this a topic they like to read about? Is this a format they prefer?

“Later as I got into B2B publishing and then agencies, those are the questions I still ask myself every day when planning content. It’s just different than straight news, because instead of your audience being “all humans who can read and live in this area,” it’s “grocery store managers” or “hospital system executives.” Knowing your audience and thinking about things from their point of view is key whether you’re creating an infographic, pitching to a journalist, or writing a tweet.”

Even though most folks said the skills transferred, more than a few said they still had to struggle a bit when it came to making the switch. Not everything they did in news worked in PR and not every PR need was taught to them during their college career.

A content manager for a firm that specializes in thought leadership said it took a while to settle into the new job and new expectations:

“The skills transfer, but the processes took me a while to figure out. I’ve only worked for one PR firm, but the systems in place are so much more structured than anything I ever experienced in newsrooms, even when I worked for Gannett. Most days, that’s a good thing – the people in charge know what they’re doing and really think ahead – but I do miss the freedom of just jumping in my car to find a random story.”

A PR professional at a prestigious private university also said that although the skills transfer, he’s not done learning yet:

“I find the writing I do in my current job very challenging, which is a great perk frankly. And I can read the minds of reporters and editors with a fair degree of accuracy. I wouldn’t be able to do my current job nearly as well without my journalism training and experience. That said, I learn everyday from my colleagues who do not have a journalism background. Their skills and viewpoints are different but complementary.”

Did college help get people ready for all media careers or was it “silo city?” Transitioning Careers From News to PR, Part II

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

In case you missed it, here’s part I.

When I went to school about 30 years ago (good God… My soul is starting to shrivel…), all of journalism was taught in a siloed approach: If you wanted to do newspapers, you took those classes and never saw anyone but newspaper people again, until you took the law or ethics capstone. If you did broadcast, the same thing was true, although we had a little more overlap with each other than with the kids in the strat com courses.

The PR and Ad kids seemed to be swept away right after the intro class and moved into some parallel universe where we never got to see them again. They showed up at graduation like they had been with us the whole time and we all were like, “Who the hell is that?”

My first couple teaching gigs, things were not only siloed in terms of news vs. integrated marketing communicators, but in some cases openly hostile. I remember hearing “F—ing PR kid” so often, I started wondering if the field had a branch in adult entertainment.

Professors of these varied disciplines often didn’t talk unless forced onto a committee. In student-reporter newsrooms, the students and the faculty members had an almost pathological disdain for anything involving PR. The old news theory of the “separation of church and state” when it came to ad folks and editorial folks reinforced the siloed approach we took in teaching them.

As digital publishing and social media started becoming more important than dead trees, airwaves and fax machines, it became vital for us as professors to bridge the gaps and find common ground for our students. Given the way in which academia moves at a snail’s pace and professors tend to think a great deal of their own sense of self, it’s probably a safe bet that silos remained the norm.

The folks who were nice enough to talk about life in news and PR told me that their experiences in this regard depended on a couple things: where they went to school, when they were there and how interested they were in getting a well-rounded education in the field.

For example, a VP in content strategy who attended a major journalism program said the school operated in silos, but made a few efforts to round out her experience:

“There was an attempt to ensure we got a well-rounded education in all areas of comms. So I took courses on photography for non-majors, design, branding, strategic communications, advertising, etc. although I don’t remember anything really deep into PR while in school.

“It did feel a bit siloed, and some of the courses I was required to take felt like I was checking the box because I wasn’t interested in them. Looking back, I wish I had been more invested in strategic communications, marketing (I have no memory of marketing classes being offered, but it was a while ago!), branding, etc. since that’s more of the stuff I do now.

“Also, although we were required to take statistics, the course wasn’t really applicable to marketing/comms work. Nowadays, I use consumer data all the time, so learning more about how to read that info and apply it to building marketing personas would have been super valuable.”

A practitioner who works in the field of thought leadership for professional organizations said his experience was not only more siloed, but also more hostile when it came to the news/PR divide:

“Other than being in courses with PR majors, it was silo city. The journalism professors were respectful toward PR in the classroom, but the newsroom was another matter.

“The editors/professors there had a clear disdain for the PR folks they dealt with. I think they had a right to feel that way – many of the PR folks in the city and at the university weren’t worth much.”

For a marketing manager who attended a smaller school around the same time as the VP, the siloing was a bit stronger and shaped her ideologies about the disciplines a bit more:

“It was fairly siloed. There were a few Ad/PR people in my freshman/sophomore year journalism classes, but by the time I got to the junior/senior level it was pretty much all news/editorial folks in my journalism classes. To be fair, I also did not really take any classes with an advertising or PR focus at that time.

“I don’t recall professors trashing the other side. But PR was definitely discussed through the lens of how a reporter might deal with them (ex: you can’t rely on a PR person for 100% accurate information. Get several perspectives for your story.) I remember having the perception that advertising/PR/marketing was “the dark side” and they were all sell-outs, but I think that came more from my peers.

“As far as how it aligns with my life experiences today, I guess I did sell out and join the dark side. Journalists have a much more negative view of marketers, while marketers have a pretty positive view of journalists (at least those who eventually join the dark side).”

A marketing professional in the manufacturing field who attended the same medium-sized university about 20 years earlier found stronger demarcations in how she was taught. Those silos made the transition more difficult:

“The subject was taught in a very siloed approach. You could major in Journalism, but with a News emphasis or PR/Advertising emphasis. Marketing was thrown into the PR/Advertising genre, but wasn’t its own entity.

In fact, I took a few PR/Advertising classes and the closest I saw to marketing was when we created an advertisement. We were to create an ad that could be pitched for print, radio and television. This was my first taste of marketing, though it wasn’t called that.

“As teams of 3-4 students, we created story boards (with actual drawings and cutting and pasting with scissors and glue) for a product and had to pitch it to made-up executives who were students in the same class. That experience alone was enough for me to say that I’d rather not be in advertising. It didn’t seem right for me since I was intent on writing. I followed my passion.

“The rest of my Journalism degree was focused on news writing for newspapers. It was very straightforward in its message: Write a story, include all sides, but give it an angle, create a strong lead, build the story through others and put the fluff at the end in case there are space issues on the page. I had a knack for that.

“While I’m very thankful for my training in college, it doesn’t mirror what I do today, except for the fact that newswriting and marketing are both storytelling, just in different forms.”

A few other folks mentioned that even when journalism departments tried to get them to see the field in broader terms, it had little impact. A former news reporter who now does marketing for a well-known private university said he had a focus on news and nothing else really mattered:

“I was 100% focused on news/ed and newspapers. I was guilted into taking one online-focused class and dropped my only magazine class after like two weeks. I remember nothing about PR from J-School but I would have completely ignored any discussion of it.”

The one thing that gave me hope that maybe things are changing came from the most recent grad (within the past six years) who went through a program that is actively trying to change the silos. She works as a content marketing manager for a business-to-business organization, and noted that her experiences in school spanned the field:

“It was definitely not siloed. I was a journalism major with a writing and editing emphasis. Within the journalism department, we had some core classes that included students with other areas of emphasis in the program (such as PR or visual/photojournalism) as well as journalism minors. This was great because it built my skills in a variety of different areas and introduced me to people with similar interests who would go on to be great connections throughout the “media” industry at large.

“It was definitely the start of my professional network. It was also encouraged to pursue a minor and participate in extracurriculars, such as student media, to help you broaden your skills even further. I knew quite a few people with art/graphic design minors who were interested in a more visual-focused kind of career, people with English minors for a different perspective on writing and editing, radio-tv-film for a broadcast focus, and so on.

“Within those classes and extracurriculars, professors and advisers pretty clearly shared how the skills you were learning about applied across the board. In almost every class we talked about the importance of good writing, editing, and storytelling. Those skills apply whether you’re a PR pro writing press releases, a reporter covering breaking news, or a marketing guru writing website copy and blog posts.”

Transitioning Careers from News To Public Relations, Part I

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a series that looks at journalism folks who have transitioned from jobs on the news side of the field to public relations and marketing over the course of their careers. I promised the folks anonymity before I got their answers, so they could be honest and also because I didn’t know how many folks I would get. Turns out, we have a lot of people who made the move for a lot of reasons, so I’ll do my best to keep the sources clear for you as we discuss their experiences. -VFF)

I got a text from a former student recently that helped launch this series:

Hey Vince,

I am currently applying for a communications and marketing manager position at the school district I currently cover. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me?

This guy was probably the best reporter I’ve taught in the past 10 years, simply by the dint of being a persistent little cuss. He would dig into stuff that nobody else had the patience to go get. He wouldn’t stop poking people who had records, refused to comment or otherwise dodged him until he could get the story that needed to be told. He also tended to be the person who other people told stories that often began with, “You didn’t hear this from me, but…”

The idea that he was considering a move from news into the public relations and marketing portion of the field told me two things that I pretty much already knew: The skills we teach in our journalism-based writing courses need to transfer among the disciplines of the field and that reporters were actively looking to get out of the crumbling mess that is news.

Public relations is a booming field, as there are approximately six practitioners for every one news reporter, according to a recent study. That number is up from a 2-to-1 ratio just 20 years ago. As newspapers continue to “shed” jobs (a term that should be replaced with “axe murder jobs for the sake of corporate greed,” but I digress…) and public relations continues to grow, I have no doubt that more news journalists will be taking their talents to PR.

Thus, I wanted to know what people who had made that transition saw and thought as they decided to make it and how they think we are doing to prepare them for life beyond college in a rapidly changing field.

What follows is a series of thoughts, comments and suggestions from an array of people who were nice enough to share their experiences. They come from various universities, work in different states and serve a mix of roles in the field.

Let’s start by looking at what they’re doing and how/why they made the move.

The continued downward spiral of few good newsroom opportunities, organizations cutting jobs and the general degrading of news jobs was a common theme for a number of people who made a quick switch to the other side of the field.  A California-based marketing manager for a tech company said she made the switch from news to social media promotional work after years of job fatigue:

“To be blunt, I left journalism because I got exhausted with the low pay and yearly layoffs that often felt like the Hunger Games.

“In the year before I left, the company I was working for did an extensive reorganization where everyone in the newsroom had to reapply for ‘new’ jobs, complete with resumes and interviews with editors from other papers in the chain. Of course, there were fewer positions on the other side of the re-org. The process took 6 months and was so psychologically exhausting that it felt like a type of PTSD. And I was one one of the “lucky” ones to get a job that was basically the same as the one I had. I can think of at least one person at that paper who got a job they didn’t apply for (and probably didn’t really want).

“Marketing was the easiest field to transition to. I was the social media and engagement editor for my paper, so I was able to land a social media manager job without much hassle.”

For many people, the move wasn’t a hard break, but rather a series of small moves that had them using their skills in different ways.

A marketing manager for a manufacturing company in Wisconsin has worked as a marketing professional for the past 15 years at various institutions. Prior to that, she spent the 10 years after her college graduation as a news journalist:

“My move to the PR/Marketing side of things occurred somewhat naturally through my various places of employment. I went from writing hard news stories at newspapers to writing news stories in magazines and newsletters for non-profit organizations and then for corporate jobs.

“As the industry morphed into the digital thing it is today, the shift was made somewhat naturally as society and our culture became more interested in short stories than long stories. Ultimately, the storytelling part of my training has remained constant through my career, no matter what kind of story I was telling or for what kind of media.”

A VP at a major financial institution, who serves as a content strategist, also noted the gradual movement over time from news to marketing:

“It was sort of a gradual transition driven partially by necessity. I started out as a newspaper reporter (2003), and then over a 5-year period, I went from news to B2B magazine publishing (2005), then custom publishing (2007), which morphed into content marketing (2008ish).

“Over time, I became more of an agency person than a journalist. I got out of news initially because I was a magazine major and really wanted to break into magazine publishing. When I moved to the custom publisher in 2007, the company primarily created magazines for brands, so that was my entry into agency-land. That also happened to be when social media became ‘a thing,’ so the whole industry changed, and the company I was with adapted as needed along with it.

“By the time I left in 2014, it was a full-on marketing agency and I was a content strategist more so than an editor or writer.”

 

In some cases, the small moves were less linear, as was the case for a PR professional who works for a firm that represents professional organizations, like law firms and management consultants, in the realm of thought leadership:

“I got out of newspapering right before the economy crashed in 2008 — and when I wanted to get back in, there were fewer good opportunities (I faced some geographic constraints, too). I actually did sales/tech stuff for a few years and then some freelance writing and editing. I decided writing and editing was more for me, so I signed on with the PR firm to do that kind of work.”

Many people mentioned the issue of needing a job but being limited to a certain geographic area, such as this former broadcast journalist who also taught college courses and advised student media:

“So I was a broadcast news producer before grad school. Then taught for years and ended up making a move to DC due to my husband’s work, and PR jobs here are everywhere. I am a director at a large consulting firm serving government clients.”

The same thing rang true for a former copy editor and writer for major media outlets, who shifted to PR after more than a decade in news:

“I made the move to PR because my commute was untenable and neither my job nor my family was going to move. I looked at good employers within a reasonable distance of my house and started applying.

“Much to my own surprise, I haven’t missed journalism for a moment since I left nearly nine years ago. I don’t even miss election night pizza.”

Next time: The pros discuss the things their education did (or didn’t do) for them in terms of preparing them for life beyond the newsroom.

The Junk Drawer: Raiders and Haters edition

“No, I don’t know where your mask went…”

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Let’s take a spin:

I SUPPOSE ALL NUMBER 16s LOOK ALIKE TO SOME PEOPLE:

A friend forwarded this to me to point out the truly awful nature of Brett Favre’s accuracy issues:

Point taken. Brett made Vinny Testaverde look like a pin-point passer. However, that’s not the only thing I noticed here.

When Favre threw his 278th pick of his career, he passed longevity legend George Blanda, who did spend an appreciable part of his career with the Oakland Raiders. The problem here? That’s not a picture of Blanda. It’s fellow Raider and fellow Number 16, Jim Plunkett.

Jim Plunkett - All-Time Roster - History | Raiders.com

Plunkett, the guy in the first picture, only threw 198 picks while Blanda, the guy in the second picture, who started his career before Favre was born, threw 277.

I suppose there’s something to be said for being accurate when you’re trying to pick on someone else…

THE GREATEST HEADLINE EVER (AT LEAST I THINK SO):

When you get to my age, you start to wonder if you actually saw some of the things you saw, or if you are literally stuck in “legend mode.” (As in, “I swear to GOD that happened… It didn’t? Where the hell did I get that from?”)

Case in point, I’ve often talked about one of the most clever and off the cuff headlines I’ve ever seen, even though I never could find a copy of it. When  up-and-coming-performer Jason Mraz played a concert at Ball State in the early 2000s, it was a disaster witnessed by one of our newsroom design vets. He promised to not only write a review for it, but he had the headline picked out.

Given the student and given the performance, I spent a week fearing what he would come up with. When it ran, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d seen in years.

Somewhere along the way, I lost my copy of that paper and no one else seemed to have it. Eventually, I figured I just made it up. However, another former student let me know that Ball State just digitized all sorts of archives, including the student paper. I did a little digging and I”m so glad I did.

Behold the glory of Emmet Smith’s snark:

Speaking of great headlines…

YOU HAD ME AT “VASECTOMIES”…

To keep up with what’s going on the PR side of the business, I signed up for a press release service that literally sends me about a half dozen emails a day. Every one of them is some organization promoting something or other and I’d say that when I’m not working on PR stuff for a book or a class, 99.99% of them end up in the trash without a second thought.

Then there was this:

I have to admit it was a good release and campaign, in that, it did the following:

  • Drew my attention with a headline that had me thinking, “What the heck is this? I gotta find out.”
  • Fulfilled the promise set out in the headline.
  • Clearly and in descending order of importance told me what was going on, why it was going on and why it mattered.
  • Tied two things that could seemingly not be further apart together in a coherent and logical way, once I actually read into it.
  • Took a risk, but a calculated one that probably paid off better than if these folks soft-peddled it.

And, finally, speaking of things take some testicular fortitude…

HATERS GONNA HATE, TEXTBOOK AUTHORS GONNA TEXTBOOK, I GUESS…

I’m in a number of teaching groups online where we to our best to help each other out. I didn’t think I was overdrawn at the favor bank, so I asked for some help to find a textbook for a freelancing class I’m going to teach in the fall.

Here was the one response that kind of bugged me (I cut the name off to save the embarrassment):

Couple things:

  1. I was looking at trying to find a book, so you telling me not to bother isn’t really helpful. It would be like calling Triple A for a tow after my car broke down and the operator saying, “You really should just use public transportation. It’s safer and more ecologically friendly.” Maybe, but that’s not the point right now.
  2. Saying “In my humble opinion” doesn’t make it humble when you say it this way. In fact, it’s rarely humble. It’s like whenever someone says, “I’m not racist, but…” I’m bracing for some stuff that would make Archie Bunker blush.
  3. “Too expensive and useless…” Um… Dude? The very first chapter in all of my textbooks I’ve done for SAGE is about how to know you’re audience. Maybe if you read one of them, you’d know why this statement kind of rubs me the wrong way. Then again, maybe not.

HATERS GON HATE soul train haters gun hate haters gonna hate dance trending GIF

Time to go back to writing another chapter for an expensive and useless textbook I’m working on. I’m guessing I shouldn’t ask this guy for a back cover blurb…

Vince (A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper)

Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” prequel gets her sued on allegations of invasion of privacy (and two things you can learn from this debacle)

Trying to find fresh and relevant cases involving “misappropriation” or “false light” claims of invasion of privacy can be difficult.

Thank God for Cardi B.

A suit that is headed to trial later this year will determine if the rapper engaged in both of these acts when she included a distinctive tattoo on one of her album covers:

A federal judge in Santa Ana, California, has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that a man’s distinctive back tattoo was used without his permission in a sexual picture on an album cover by rapper Cardi B.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District of California refused to dismiss the suit by plaintiff Kevin Michael Brophy Jr., who sports a full back tattoo that shows a tiger battling a snake.

<SNIP>

Brophy said his likeness was misappropriated in the photoshopped image in “a misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual way.” He alleges misappropriation of likeness or identity, violation of the right to publicity under California law, and false light invasion of privacy.

Based on the decency standards my editors have for me here, I can’t include a copy of the album cover (I tried adding it to a Facebook post on this and I got flagged for violating community standards…). I also can’t mention the title of the album cover or even EXPLAIN what it is that is happening ON the album cover here.

Just Google “Cardi B,” “album cover” and “Gangsta” and you’ll like find it.

Essentially, let’s just say that Cardi B is drinking a beer while the male model upon whom Brophy’s back tattoo has been superimposed is doing something where the tattoo is fully visible and the man’s face is not.

The concept of misappropriation is the use of someone’s image without their approval. A simple example of this would be if one of my students was running for student body president and thought my endorsement would be valuable to him. Thus, he grabbed a photo of me teaching and included it on his posters without asking for my endorsement.

False light claims tend to put two true things close enough together that people will see them as related, even if they’re not. In cases like these, the court is looking at the “gist” of the material to see if a falsehood is implied. For example, in Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., actor Jose Solano won a false-light suit after the magazine published his photo along with headlines implying he posed nude in the magazine, which he did not.

Some states, like Colorado, don’t recognize these kinds of legal nuances, rolling them instead into either general defamation or copyright claims, depending on what is at the core of the case. In other cases, the claims are without merit and get tossed quickly, leaving few true battles over who has the right to control a personal image.

In this case, it’s a daily double, in that the “misappropriation” claim of Brophy’s image (it’s a heck of a tattoo…) and the “false light” claim (that isn’t Brophy on the cover, but anyone who knows him and that tattoo would be hard-pressed to determine that on first glance) seem to fit the definitions perfectly.

The rapper’s legal team asked a federal judge to toss the suit back in December, arguing the album art was covered under a fair-use claim, in that the reworking of the tattoo into the piece made the work transformative. The court disagreed and the case will move forward to trial in the near future.

To say Cardi B is displeased with these allegations would be a slight understatement, based on her deposition:

“I’m really upset because I really have to be with my kid. All because of some bulls**t trying to get money and then $5,000,000. Are you f***ing kidding me? That mixtape didn’t even make, not even a million dollars.” Cardi added, “I got real lawsuits with real sh**, and I got to deal with this bulls**t. This is four hours long taking away from my time, my job, my motherhood.”

Ah, yes… If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my own mother’s voice uttering those exact words…

In any case, regardless of how this turns out, here are two key things you can learn from just watching this train wreck take place:

Permission for use solves almost everything: In reading through the coverage of this case and the depositions, it turns out the guy who designed the cover just Googled “back tattoo” and grabbed this one at random. (It also turns out he was paid $50 to build the cover, which could be the cautionary tale of “You get what you pay for,” I suppose.)

I would bet every dollar in my pocket right now against a pile of nothing that when this guy built the cover, he NEVER thought anyone would complain about their image being used in this fashion. The… let’s call it “up close with Cardi B”… nature of this image would likely be bragging rights for almost every human male on the planet, I would imagine.

In this case, he appears to have found the one guy with the one tat who didn’t feel this way. That’s why it’s important to ask people for permission to use their stuff. I could assume that any journalism outlet would LOVE to have its stories or photos or illustrations included in a textbook to illustrate how the true greats of the field operate. However, my publisher believes in covering its keester, so we have permission forms that get signed and stored.

Maybe Brophy is making a power play and could care less how he would be portrayed on an album cover, so long as he got paid. Maybe Brophy is truly a man who views this representation of him as “misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual,” and is truly upset by this. Who knows? The key is that it’s his right to have his body portrayed as he sees fit, which is why this is going to court.

Permission would have made this much easier to figure out, so make sure you get it.

“But it’s JUST for X” is never an excuse: Somewhere in the sprawling field of asterisks that populate Cardi B’s quote above is the notion that the album only made $1 million, so to have to pay out $5 million is ridiculous. The problem here is that she’s not being sued for a portion of revenue. She’s being sued to penalize her for her actions.

The law can be more or less forgiving in certain situations, but it is the law. Therefore, deciding to steal something and then say, “but it was JUST…” isn’t necessarily going to keep you out of trouble. I can’t remember how many times I’ve critiqued a high school or college paper that basically stole an image and published it. (Writing “Photo courtesy of Google” didn’t make it any better.) When I pointed out how much trouble this could create, I got the “Well, it’s JUST for a HIGH SCHOOL newspaper. I’m sure people have better things to do that try to sue us.”

Maybe. But a) Is that a risk you want to take? and b) Is that the lesson you want to teach your students? (“Steal small, kids, and you’ll never have to take responsibility for it!”)

I’ve seen this happen both ways, with bigger news outlets stealing from student newspapers (One told my photographer, “You’re just a student publication. You should be happy we’re using your work…” Um… No…) and student papers stealing from the big dogs. Both cases are wrong and in both cases, you can get into trouble for doing it.

I’m sure this guy who got paid $50 to design this thing for one of the myriad women who would likely crash and burn on “Love and Hip Hop” was thinking, “I’m just doing this thing for beer money. No way anyone buys this stupid thing.” However, he hit big, so now everyone is paying the price.

It’s like speeding: Sure, you might get away with five over, but when the cop in Rosendale pulls you over for doing 31 in a 30, the “But I was just speeding a little!” excuse is not going to fly.

 

Throwback Thursday: A shout-out for gender-equity and making sure you’re sure after Baylor’s NCAA men’s basketball title

A lot of hoops-la (sorry, I had to) was made of the Baylor Bears winning the NCAA men’s basketball title this week. The men’s team had never won a title before and was at least seven decades removed from its last championship game.

However, when writers started talking about it, they did so in a way that wasn’t entirely accurate:

Baylor routs Gonzaga as Bears win first national title, end Zags’ perfect season

‘Make a movie out of it’: Go behind the scenes of Baylor’s first national championship celebration

They did it! Baylor Bears dominate Gonzaga to capture first NCAA basketball championship

The problem? Baylor actually had three previous national championships in basketball… all of them on the women’s side.

Some publications did make the distinction for the readers, but more than a few did not.

So with that in mind, we throw back back to another “first” that wasn’t from three years ago to give people a few helpful hints on reporting sports achievements of this type.

 

3 lessons beginning sports writers should learn from the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers win over No. 1 Virginia

Sports journalism thrives on record-setting performances, amazing finishes and moments when the impossible occurs. As the NCAA men’s Division I tournament began last week, one “unbreakable” record appeared safe: No 16 seed in that tournament had ever defeated a 1 seed in the tournament. In 135 chances, the 16 seed was 0-135.

The Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County ended that streak on Friday, defeating the top-ranked team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points. People poured on to social media to relish the moment and celebrate the “David” who just took down “Goliath.” However, in calling the Retrievers the “first 16 seed to ever defeat a 1 seed,” people were factually inaccurate.

The women’s team at Harvard came to the NCAA tournament in 1998 as a 16 seed and defeated the number one team from Stanford, 71-67. Thus, the Retrievers were the first men to accomplish this task and yet not the first team to pull it off.

This leads to three simple lessons to take forward:

  • Don’t assume only men play: In a number of sports, men and women participate and women have the edge when it comes to records. For example, the person with the most open-era singles wins at Wimbledon isn’t Roger Federer with eight, but rather Martina Navratilova with nine. The person with the most goals in Olympic soccer history is Cristiane, a player for the Brazilian women’s national team. If you think something is a first, a last or an only, make sure to check both sides of the gender ledger before calling it a one-of-a-kind event.

 

  • Don’t assume  your level of competition is the only level out there: Sports have multiple divisions at the collegiate level (D-I, D-II and D-III), so just because a D-I team hasn’t pulled something off, don’t assume no one else ever has. When an NFL record is broken, keep in mind it isn’t the only “pro” league to ever exist, so if you are making a statement about all professional football history, make sure to check back on things like the WFL and the USFL. Or, just stick to calling it an NFL record.

 

  • Don’t assume that because “everybody said” something that “everybody is right: Watching the “first-ever 16 seed” (a redundancy that was almost as bad as the error itself) story fly around the internet had people piling on until someone decided to set the record straight:Harvard2

 

This leads to the main point of this post and the bigger overall lesson: Say ONLY what you KNOW for SURE. Don’t get caught up in the hype or assume something has NEVER happened just because you don’t know that it happened before or because “everyone knows” that something hasn’t happened. Instead, write what you can prove: No 16-seeded men’s team in this history of the NCAA D-I tournament had beaten a 1 seed in 135 attempts before UMBC defeated Virginia.

Your readers will still enjoy your work, the outcome is still impressive and you will have the benefit of being accurate.

A rock star with a heroin problem, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” guy and a foul-mouthed cheerleader: The Suicide Squad of free speech court cases

A frequent joke told among lawyers is that the best case is the one with a carload of nuns as your client and a busload of priests as your witnesses. In most cases, however, it seems more like this scene from “The Wire.”

 

When it comes to First Amendment law, it would be great if we had more cases in which polite, articulate young people like Mary Beth Tinker who quietly wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War. Her choice led to hate mail and threats, but also a ground-breaking Supreme Court case regarding student free-speech rights. And, looking back on it now, people can understand better her underlying concerns about the war as well as her relatively mild statement against it.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established that students do not shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. It also provided protections for students who wish to express themselves against intrusion from school overreach.

Unfortunately, an upcoming case in which a high school student did her best “Scarface” dialogue on Snapchat could be the case that undoes a lot of those protections in a digital age:

In 2017, ninth-grader Brandi Levy said on Snapchat some version of what stressed-out students have been saying on the back of the school bus since the invention of buses: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.”

The post was shared on a Saturday afternoon during a trip to the local convenience store, disappeared from Snapchat by Sunday afternoon, and caused no disturbance at school whatsoever—except to irritate the cheerleading coach, who banned Levy from the squad for a year.

She filed suit, and in June 2020, a federal appeals court ruled that school authorities violated the First Amendment by disciplining her for the off-campus speech. Now, the Mahanoy district is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

The case doesn’t matter in regard to that single incident anymore. Levy is now a college student, the cheer team has had a complete turnover in terms of membership and nothing the court could do would change what happened in regard to the punishment levied at the time.

However, if the court decides to overturn that appeals court’s ruling, it could mean that schools can now actively monitor social media and punish students for ANYTHING that appears to be “objectionable.” If that doesn’t scare you, you probably had one of the six “really cool” high school principals I was always told existed somewhere.

Me? I dealt with a lot of nuns and balding guys who wore short-sleeve shirts with brown ties. This is terrifying…

This leads to the point of the post: It seems like we NEVER get the perfect Supreme Court case that perfectly showcases speech that deserves to be protected for the betterment of society. It’s never the student newspaper that was censored for reporting that the principal had stolen money or the kid with the bullhorn outside the school telling people not to eat cafeteria food because the workers were being abused.

It’s always something with an F-bomb, a nude pick or a drug reference that we get to stand behind and say, “Hey, look… You CAN’T censor this because… well… geez…”

We don’t get Superman, Batman, Aquaman or Wonder Woman as our defenders of freedom.

We get The Suicide Squad:

In other words, we get a “mental defective dressed as a court jester,” a “guy who wears a toilet seat on his head” and a “shark with hands,” to quote the red-band trailer I’m not allowed to show you here…

If you think I’m kidding about this, consider the following court cases on important topics:

The landmark case for online speech and defamation? Rocker/Actress/Woman I’d be most scared of meeting in a dark alley Courtney Love won and survived an appeal of her “twibel” case (Twitter plus libel) in 2014. Love, whose outlandish behavior and heroin abuse have long been the subject of media coverage, stated that an attorney had been “bought off” instead of helping Love recoup parts of her late husband’s estate.

A crucial Supreme Court case regarding speech at school sponsored events? Morse v. Frederick, also known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. A student held up a sign at an event proclaiming the cryptic message. When the sign was taken away by school administrators, the student later sued claiming his First-Amendment rights had been violated. The SCOTUS ruled that schools have the right to remove pro-drug messages, even though students have some free speech rights at school.

The case that dealt directly with a reporter’s right to maintain confidential sources? Branzburg v. Hayes, which dealt with reporters being forced to disclose the names of sources who were manufacturing hashish.

And, of course, the case involving satire and hyperbole in regard to public figures comes from the apparent patron saint of this blog, pornographer Larry Flynt.

Now, the question of whether students can get smacked around for writing things on their own time on their own social media that school officials dislike comes down to one foul-mouthed 14-year-old cheerleader.

The problem with all of these cases is that it becomes so much easier to suppress speech that is unpopular, vulgar or otherwise disagreeable.

If the reporters in Branzburg were protecting whistleblowers who had uncovered some sort of dark plot by a foreign government to go all “Red Dawn” on the U.S., it would likely feel better to the courts to support their interests in remaining anonymous.

If the school was trying to suppress speech about the superintendent stealing money from the district to buy weed, maybe a “No Bong Hits 4 Superintendent Smith” sign would have garnered a different outcome.

If Sally Fields had tweeted about potential legal malfeasance (while wearing her “Flying Nun” costume), it might not have felt like the entire future of online free speech hinged on whether the defendant was going to lose her mind on the stand and start throwing things at the jury.

If the cheerleader had done her rant without the f-bomb, maybe the courts would be more inclined to side with her at every level.

However, we don’t get to choose the cases that decide our fate, which is why it’s important to make sure that we stand up for all speech because what one person thinks is a felony charge, others might consider a misdemeanor at best. In the mean time, keep an eye on this one, as it’s got a lot more at stake than a lot of people think.

It’s all fun and games until Dominion Voting Systems sues you for a couple billion dollars

During the 2020 presidential election, multiple people made claims that the voting systems had been rigged to favor Democrat candidate Joe Biden. Several of then-President Donald Trump’s allies and associates took to various media platforms to repeat these allegations, arguing that the voting systems had been compromised and that any outcome which did not place Trump back in the White House was a result of fraud.

Dominion Voting Systems, which produces many of the electronic voting machines used in the election, apparently isn’t too thrilled about this, as the folks there have filed several lawsuits regarding these claims. It’s gotten so bad that some media outlets are keeping track of who is being sued, for how much and for what reason, like ESPN tracking the movement of NFL free agents.

The most recent suit is one that is most likely of interest to the folks reading the blog, as Dominion filed a $1.6 billion suit Friday against Fox News, alleging the company knew it was allowing lies about the election to proliferate:

In the lawsuit, Dominion argued that Fox and several of its on-air personalities elevated baseless claims about the voting company rigging the 2020 election and allowed falsehoods by their guests to go unchecked, including a wild claim that the company’s machines were manufactured in “Venezuela to rig elections for the dictator Hugo Chávez” and that Dominion’s algorithm manipulated votes so that then-President Trump would lose.

“Fox engaged in this knowing and reckless propagation of these enormous falsehoods in order to profit off these lies,” reads the lawsuit. “Fox wanted to continue to protect its broadcast ratings, catering to an audience deeply loyal to President Trump.”

The lawsuit argues that there are actual damages to the company’s brand, but also to the workers who are just trying to make a living. The suit notes that Fox’s conduct not only will cost the company more than $600 million in the next eight years, but also that front-line workers have been threatened.

Fox has noted that it will defend itself, having already filed several motions to dismiss and that the company “is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism.”

Here are a few things to take away from this and several other lawsuits filed in regard to the voting systems:

A FREE PRESS IS NOT A CONSEQUENCE-FREE PRESS: A lot of folks misinterpret the First Amendment to mean you are protected against all sorts of things when you publish content. The truth is that all the amendment guarantees is that the government shall not prevent you from publishing material. That’s basically it.

It doesn’t mean that other people can’t stop you, like the owner of a website where you post content, the publisher of a newspaper or a producer at a broadcast station. It also doesn’t mean you can get away with whatever you want without paying the price.

When you say something that is false and harmful, you can be in a lot of trouble, which is why professors push so hard on students to make ABSOLUTELY SURE on every fact in a story. It’s also why editors pick and pick and pick at stories with reporters, as to avoid any potential landmines.

If I get up on Fox News and tell the world that I have information supporting the notion that the chancellor of my university is running a cocaine ring out of the student union in exchange for getting away with a murder he committed in 1987, I’m going to be in a HECK of a lot of trouble because it’s not true and it’s going to harm him.

It also leads to the second point…

UNLIKELY, UNREAL AND COMPLETELY UNBELIEVABLE ARE ALL DIFFERENT THINGS: One of the dumber defenses in a Dominion suit is that of former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. The company is suing her for $1.3 billion, arguing she knowingly spread a baseless claim that Dominion and another voting system company were working with the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to rig the election.

Powell has argued in motions to dismiss that her claims were so outlandish that nobody in their right mind would believe them:

It was just conjecture. No reasonable person would conclude those allegations were true statements of fact. Besides, in heated political arguments, people tend to exaggerate. You should dismiss the lawsuit or at least move it to my home state.

That’s essentially the defense offered by Sidney Powell’s lawyers to the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Denver-based voting Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. Dominion provides voting equipment to more than 1,300 jurisdictions in 28 states including Colorado.

We’ve talked about this kind of claim earlier this year when porn mogul Larry Flynt died. The “no reasonable person” defense was at the core of his Supreme Court appeal, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for publishing a spoof advertisement involving him. Flynt won the appeal with a unanimous decision, but before Powell pops open the champagne, I’d consider these issues:

  • Flynt was publishing a porn mag, known for all sorts of really outlandish stuff, including a photo of a woman being stuffed into a meat grinder. Powell was on nightly news outlets and other media platforms purporting to deliver truthful information gathered from inside sources.
  • Flynt’s ad claimed that the highly religious Falwell lost his virginity by having sex with his mother and a goat in an outhouse, which is almost the textbook definition of outlandish. Powell was claiming election fraud, something other countries had experienced and something that people within the government were also stating as fact.
  • Flynt was a strip-club owner who published pictures of naked people in magazines that had been banned in multiple cities. Powell had been a counselor to the president of the United States.

When it comes to the idea of hyperbole and satire, or otherwise outlandish things, you have a pretty high bar to clear if you want to be on safe side of that argument. Had Flynt claimed that Falwell stole money from his congregation, he would have likely been on much shakier ground, given that other high-profile preachers had been accused or convicted of such things. The same thing could be said had he claimed Falwell had slept with prostitutes or committed adultery, given the climate of the time. However, nobody reading the Campari spoof thought, “Wow! Reverend Jerry is a really kinky guy! Guess you learn something new every day…”

Powell’s defense in this case is that nobody could have believed a legal expert who worked with the president in regard to voting irregularities when she said the company responsible for voting reliability failed in its task. I’m really interested to see how that plays out, but more out of morbid curiosity to see if the judge can keep a straight face throughout the trial, not because it’ll set a new precedent.

THE MUDDLING OF OPINION AND FACT IS ALWAYS A CONCERN: When I teach basic media writing to students, one of the hardest things for them to figure out is what is an opinion and what is a fact. It often comes down to me scrawling “SAYS WHO?” on their paper 183 times before they understand what they can say and what they shouldn’t say. Occasionally, we would have the discussion of “You are wearing a black shirt. That is a fact. You are wearing a NICE black shirt. That is my opinion.”

Cable news organizations have long muddied the waters of what is opinion and what is fact, almost to the point where people either don’t know the difference or don’t care as long as it matches up with what they believe. I often wonder if a lot of high-profile people end up buying their own BS to the point that they themselves think, “If I believe it, it must be true.”

Journalism pushes harder on people to verify information, clarify where the information originated and remain rigorous in reporting only what we can prove. At least, that’s the goal we have in mind when it comes to separating opinion from fact.

To help us clarify the distinctions a bit better, the U.S. Court of Appeals offered a four-step examination as part of its ruling in Ollman v. Evans (1984) to help people see if a statement falls into the realm of fact or opinion:

Can the statement be proved true or false? Courts have held that factual statements can be proved true or false. A statement like “The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series championships” can be proved true or false by examining their records in the annals of baseball. The truth or falsity of a statement like “The New York Yankees are the best baseball team ever” cannot be determined, because it lacks several key elements for us to examine. In a defamation case, the plaintiff must prove that the material is false, and this can be the case only if the material of a factual, as opposed to an opinion-based, nature.

What is the common or ordinary meaning of the words? People often use euphemistic language in their daily discourse. If you referred to a sloppy person as a pig, that person might be upset, but they can’t win a libel suit by demonstrating that they are not “an omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and a flat snout for rooting in the soil, kept for its meat.” The common meaning that the person has poor personal hygiene or fails to keep their home neat and clean is clearly the way in which most people would interpret that remark.

What is the journalistic context of the remark? Who is saying something and the way in which they are saying it matter greatly in determining if something is a fact or not. For example, if you’re telling a joke involving two men walking into a bar, people are clearly expecting something different than if you are testifying in front of Congress. Content published on the news pages of a legacy media outlet is contextually different from a series of blog posts on a goofball-based website that would make the staff at the National Enquirer roll their eyes. The statements made on air during a newscast are contextually different from those made on a “morning zoo” radio show.

What is the social context of the remark? Where we tend to see opinions and where we tend to see facts often help define which are which. For example, a lecture on the biology related to procreation is expected to be based in facts, while two groups of protesters confronting each other outside an abortion clinic will be a more heated and opinionated exchange.