Journalism and PR: The Search for Truth

February 23, Roger Bolton

Last night, I had the honor of presenting the first Larry Foster Award for Integrity in Public Communication to a journalist: Alan Murray. The award was granted by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, an academic center founded at Penn State by the late Larry Foster, former head of communications at Johnson & Johnson.

I met Alan when I was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to be assistant secretary of the Treasury for public affairs and Alan was covering global economic policy from Washington for the Wall Street Journal. It was a contentious time. The Savings and Loan crisis. The Brady Third World debt Plan. Protracted tax and budget negotiations between a Republican Administration and a Democratic Congress.

Alan was determined to get to the truth, to the essential reality that the world needed to know. My job, as I saw it, was to help him do his job. Of course, the relationship between a government or corporate spokesman and a journalist must be somewhat adversarial. I represented the Administration's positions and Alan had an obligation to look critically at our claims, and to consider also the views of others, who opposed us.

But that didn't mean he thought I was a liar and I thought he was the enemy. On the contrary, I always felt, and I hope Alan did, too, that we were on the same side. We were on the side of truth. Of justice. Of fairness. Of integrity in public communication. If Alan did his job well, it helped me to do my job, which was to inform the American people.

I welcomed Alan's determination to report on the views of others who didn't agree with us – as unpleasant as that might have seemed at times, especially when we were convinced we were right – because that helped us to understand the reality of the world outside our bubble. All organizations are prone to group-think. We convince ourselves that we are right based on our narrow view of the world.

The press plays an indispensable role in giving voice to all viewpoints and perspectives, and we have an obligation to listen to those views with an open heart and mind.

If ever there was a time to celebrate the value of journalism in our pluralistic, democratic society; if ever there was a time to embrace journalism's role in holding our institutions accountable; if ever there was a time to reassert our belief in the freedom of the press to do its job, this is that time. And it's fitting that the journalist the Page Center chose to honor for his lifetime of integrity is Alan Murray.

I've followed Alan's career closely for many, many years. Washington Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal. Washington Bureau Chief of CNBC and host of Capitol Report. Deputy Managing Editor and Editor of the Online Edition of the Journal. President of the Pew Research Center. Editor of Fortune. Chief Content Officer, Time Inc. And along the way, the author of a number of books, including the acclaimed "Showdown at Gucci Gulch." His current Fortune CEO Daily email is indispensable reading as I start my day.

Through it all: a relentless search for the truth, for context, for fairness, for reality.

I have a sense that Alan's biggest contribution may be yet to come. At Fortune, his Change the World annual issue and his discussions with business leaders and even the Pope on "A New Business Manifesto" are working to encourage business to use its considerable power to drive social and economic change that will make the world a better place, where all its citizens can prosper and thrive.

At the Page Society and the Page Center – two separate, but closely aligned organizations – we share that optimistic aspiration.

5 Comments

Thank you Roger. Well timed, and poignant. I particularly love this sentiment - "The press plays an indispensable role in giving voice to all viewpoints and perspectives, and we have an obligation to listen to those views with an open heart and mind."
Thank you, Rebekah. Respect for the views of others is not just a moral obligation, but also critical to our ability to learn and to grow.
Roger, thanks as always for your insightful post. The points you make are extremely important in this increasingly contentious time. It is dismaying to say the least to hear the leadership in Washington describe the news media, broadly, as the "enemy of the people." Your comments speak to a time not so long ago when we could disagree without demonizing those with whom we disagreed. When he was a Republican Congressman from Texas, your former boss, President George H.W. Bush, voted with President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, 53% of the time. He voted with Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, a Republican, 55% of the time. Today numbers like that seem almost unbelievable. Can you imagine someone with a voting record like that surviving in today's Congress? Bush was a moderate, centrist Republican and there were many like him in both parties. The media--both liberal and conservative--has clearly played a role in fostering some of this polarization, and they will have to accept some of the responsibility for trying to restore civil debate in our society. Putting that genie back in the bottle will be no small task and we in the Page Society and the Page Center must do what we can, when we can to help move things in the right direction. People like Alan Murray, along with last night's other award recipients, Dick Martin and Ann Barkelew, provide great role models in doing so.
Thank you for these timely reminders, Tom. I remember those days, when issues were decided by conscience, when opposing views were respected and valued. I am committed, as I know you are, to working through the two Page organizations and with valued colleagues like Alan, Dick and Ann, to find our way back to respect, civility and genuine bipartisanship.
I am dubious about the attempt to meld PR with journalism and call it "Public Communication." That is because their methods are different, and so is their fundamental purpose. Harold Burson said years ago that the fundamental purpose of PR is persuasion, and I agree 100 percent. Journalism's purpose is quite different. Melding the two is what Trump and his allies are trying to do, with mixed success, mostly negative. Trump is accustomed to fawning feature writers or business publications and doesn't understand that he is now in a league where all the fastballs are 90-plus mph and the changeups can be wicked. He appears not to accept that he is no longer a hustling candidate but a public official, accountable to the press and to the American people as a whole, not just the people who form his base. Bill Huey President Strategic Communications Established 1987
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