Public Relations and the Press: The Troubled Embrace

By Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth | Journalism History, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Public Relations and the Press: The Troubled Embrace


Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth, Journalism History


Gower, Karla. Public Relations and the Press: The Troubled Embrace. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007. 300 pp. $24.95.

Karla Gower, a professor of advertising and public relations, has written a timely book about the historical relationship of the press and public relations. Both groups of practitioners are currently embattled. Critics have accused the national press corps of being too deferential to the White House in the lead-up to the war in Iraq and have charged public relations agencies and journalists with numerous unethical breaches of behavior, including paying columnists to promote the interests of government agencies and private companies. Indeed, Gower argues that the established lines between public relations and journalism have become so tangled and blurred that it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. One of her striking examples is the masquerading of news releases produced by corporations or government agencies as regular objective news broadcasts.

One result of the blurring of these lines has been the decline of the public's trust in the media. To help explain how this has happened, Gower analyzes how the relationship between public relations and the media has changed since World War II. Her primary focus is on the federal government, especially the presidency, although she pays some attention to the changing nature of public relations in the business community and among activist groups in the areas of civil rights and consumerism.

The field of public relations grew dramatically in the postwar era, and in the 1950s there quickly emerged concerns about its potential to shape public ideology by manipulating the media. Undeterred by these concerns, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, presidential candidates and sitting presidents with varying degrees of success drew on such public relations and advertising techniques as polling and creating pseudo-events to help shape media coverage of their election campaigns and later their administrations. While Eisenhower was the first to attempt to sell the presidency like a product, later presidents also strove to manage the news. Many, including most recently George W. Bush, used threats to America's national security as a means of controlling the flow of information. Richard Nixon had one of the most adversarial relationships with the media of any president.

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