On the Internet and in print, no one knows you're on the take

Summary:Another reporter on the take and an object lesson in the importance of checking even the holiest-sounding sources.

The Center for Media and Democracy call our attention to this story about a reporter paid to shill for a CEO on trial for a massive fraud:

Throughout the six-month trial that led to Richard Scrushy's acquittal in the $2.7 billion fraud at HealthSouth Corp., a small, influential newspaper consistently printed articles sympathetic to the defense of the fired CEO.

Audry Lewis, the author of those stories in The Birmingham Times, the city's oldest black-owned paper, now says she was secretly working on behalf of Scrushy, who she says paid her $11,000 through a public relations firm and typically read her articles before publication. 

Get this, the reporter and her pastor are complaining that Scrushy owes them $150,000 for their support during the trial! Scrushy is claiming surprise and outrage.

If you'll recall, the white and well-to-do Scrushy surrounded himself with black preachers every day of the trial to encourage a sympathetic view of himself amongst the largely black jury and the community at large. It was portrayed as a spontaneous outpouring of public opinion. Everyone wept a lot, too.

If a church can pose this way, we need to remember anyone can. Sure, this shows newspaper reporters can be as corrupt as a bureaucrat on the take, but the problem is human nature, not the press alone.

Important to understanding why this also applies to Net sources, including bloggers, is the claim by the reporter that she believed Scrushy was innocent and that her stories were always pro-Scrushy, even before the checks started flowing (though, somehow, the stories went from inside the paper to the front page after Scrushy put the reporter on his payroll). This is the argument that she was writing from direct experience and a sense of the truth, which many bloggers claim as a primary strength of the medium.

As the prosecutor in the case told the Associated Press: "If you want to pay someone to write favorable stories and can get a paper to print them, I don't know of any law it violates." People, be warned. Be aware. What we need online are better ways to check the sources of information, wherever that information comes from, so that PR doesn't completely overwhelm public truth.

Topics: CXO

About

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran journalist, media executive and entrepreneur. He was editor of the ground-breaking Digital Media newsletter in the 1990s and a frequent contributor to ZDNet over the years. He led development of the first Web audio/video news network at ON24, sat on the board of Electric Classifieds Inc. and Match.com, and wor... Full Bio

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