By Erin Sherbert
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Publicists have a dreary and emotionally exhausting job. Daily, they must cold-call and suck up to journalists in attempts to forge relationships that are built, fundamentally, on dysfunction.
In an ideal journalistic world, you see, publicists wouldn't exist. Journalists would be resourceful, hardworking, and freethinking, never needing the press releases, story tips, staged interviews, and other "on-message" news that publicists provide. But because they often lack these qualities, reporters eventually wind up accepting at least some of the fare that publicists pass out, albeit with resentment and suspicion, even contempt.
Publicists' bosses don't make things easier. The official rules of public relations say it's the client or cause that's supposed to shine, not the PR agent. So most often flacks toil anonymously, disrespected, maligned, and ignored -- even in cases where their work is so good it generates a Pulitzer Prize.
That's right, a Pulitzer Prize. Last week the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism awarded journalism's highest honor to a series of newspaper editorials that resulted from the efforts of a Bay Area publicist -- but without giving her any credit.
To rectify this unjust situation, SF Weekly is dedicating this space to honoring Jennifer Witherspoon, a staff publicist for the media-savvy eco-group Environmental Defense. Witherspoon's organization has, since last year, pushed a PR campaign, financed by a $500,000 donation from San Francisco philanthropist George Miller, aimed at planting media stories based on the idea that the Hetch Hetchy reservoir should be drained in order to restore the mountain valley it fills. For editorial writing spawned by this PR plan, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Yet, in keeping with the tawdry tradition in which journalists shower each other with accolades while ignoring the publicists who provided them with the "news" behind the awards, the Pulitzer announcement didn't mention Ms. Witherspoon, Environmental Defense, or even Mr. Miller, whose money made the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing possible.
Instead, Columbia University honored Sacramento Bee writer Tom Philp, who wrote editorials that were part of a flood-the-zone series consisting of 27 Bee"news" articles and opinion pieces published over a half-year's time and with the same premise as the Environmental Defense Hetch Hetchy campaign.
"I can tell you we all felt ecstatic about it," Witherspoon said when contacted about the prize she deserves credit for.
"It's exciting. I think it provides additional validation for what is a very important issue at the national level," added Tom Graff, Environmental Defense's California director.
"Yeah, I read about it, and I think that's a big deal," said George Miller, the S.F. philanthropist whose money funded the PR campaign. "But I think it's kind of astonishing that in the whole big country of America, in editorial writing, that that got it. I think it's great for the cause, but you kind of wonder."
For his part, Philp said Environmental Defense was not the guiding light for his editorials.
"I first got intrigued by this issue back in 2002 by some computer analyses that Sprek Rosekrans had done," Philp said, referring to a Hetch Hetchy restoration advocate who serves as a senior economic analyst with Environmental Defense. "We weren't campaigning together, or working jointly, in terms of me journalistically crafting it. Of course I talked to them, and requested everything the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission had, too, on options, different options on Hetch Hetchy. Sure, I contacted Environmental Defense, but that was along with every other site relating to this issue."
The prize wasn't merely unusual in honoring, as Miller noted, a series that covered an out-of-the-way topic. This Pulitzer Prize went to a project that, in terms of journalistic excess, rivals former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines' 2002 crusade, which seemed aimed at forcing the Augusta National Golf Club to accept women as members. The Beeseries violated two journalistic tenets of the sort taught at the Pulitzers' sponsoring institution, Columbia University, one of which insists that journalists report on news, and not invent pseudo-events, then report on their invention. The second says: Don't misrepresent facts.
The Beeseries began with an editorial expressing the common and reasonable opinion that it might be nice to see Hetch Hetchy Valley blossom again, nearly a century after it was flooded in 1913. The editorial was, however, spiked with the questionable assertion, drawn from a paper written by a geology student getting her master's degree at UC Davis, that draining the reservoir would be inexpensive and would not significantly affect water supplies or electricity drawn from the reservoir's hydroelectric facilities. Over the course of 13 editorials, nine signed opinion pieces, and five news stories, the series expanded on the case for restoring Hetch Hetchy and reported on a supposed political groundswell emerging around the issue. Headlines seemed to describe a polity in uproar. "Lines in the sand: a Hetch Hetchy debate slowly grows," "The Pendulum Shifts," and "Hetch Hetchy feasibility grows -- so does resistance" read the titles on Philp's final three editorials.
In creating in its editorial pages the appearance of a growing discussion on the fate of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, then reporting on the supposed "debate" in its news pages, the Bee violated dictate one. There really hasn't been much relevant debate about Hetch Hetchy, and the Beeseries hasn't really produced much in the way of relevant governmental response or results.
And in echoing Environmental Defense's misstatements about how supposedly inexpensive and unobtrusive it would be to tear down the O'Shaughnessy Dam that created the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, the Bee violated tenet two. It's not difficult to find experts with knowledge of the Hetch Hetchy system -- and with no particular political ax to grind -- to explain, in crushing detail, why draining Hetch Hetchy would, in fact, be a very complicated and expensive undertaking.
Given that the spreading of pseudo-news and the successful planting of exaggeration are hallmarks of a good publicist, we believe Witherspoon deserves nothing but praise. Sadly, the Pulitzer committee hasn't seen fit to credit her.
Philp's series began with an August 2004 editorial, building on information included in a 2002 opinion piece, that cited a technical-sounding treatise making the exaggerated claim that draining Hetch Hetchy would be cheaper and less obtrusive than commonly thought. The reservoir holds water from the Tuolumne River in the lower Sierra Nevada and has supplied water to San Francisco since the 1920s under federal license.
Subsequent editorials explored the premise that San Franciscans are environmental hypocrites for not draining the valley; the Beepieces also invented an imaginary conversation with naturalist John Muir, in which he discusses restoring the valley. News sections in the Sacramento Bee and Modesto Bee, both owned by Philp's employer, McClatchy Newspapers, meanwhile provided an echo chamber for Philp's editorials, publishing stories with headlines such as "Study Says Hetch Hetchy Can Be Restored: Critics Pounce." Those stories in some cases contained "news" that consisted of reactions to the "events" of the Bee's series and the Environmental Defense PR campaign. Philp then echoed those stories with editorials describing an "emerging debate" on Hetch Hetchy, without mentioning that it happened to be taking place mostly in the offices of the Bee and Environmental Defense. Next came the unsigned editorial "The Pendulum Shifts," which suggested that the PR campaign, news stories, and editorials were gaining traction in the public sphere at large, which is certainly an arguable thesis. The Bee wrapped up the series in February with an editorial titled "Hetch Hetchy feasibility grows -- so does resistance."
In reality, there hasn't been any real discussion about tearing down the O'Shaughnessy Dam in either San Francisco or Washington, D.C., the sites where relevant decisions about the Hetch Hetchy reservoir and water system would have to take place.
Since the Hetch Hetchy campaign and Beeseries began a year ago, among public officials with a say in the issue, discussion "is less alive. There is less public conversation about it," says San Francisco Public Utilities Commissioner Adam Werbach, who happens to be a strident supporter of tearing down the O'Shaughnessy Dam.
When a national publication such as the New York Times commits the sin of overenthusiasm in campaigning for a cause, as during Raines' Augusta National jag, the whole country notices and pokes fun. That series involved "blowing embers on the story, hoping it would ignite," as the online magazine Slatenoted. The Augusta episode was cited, in journalistic autopsies that followed his resignation last year, as a prime example of Raines' excess.
But when a paper in an out-of-the-way burg like Sacramento indulged in such self-referential harangues -- and misrepresented reality to boot -- Pulitzer judges seemed to have given the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the Beehad its facts straight, and that the supposed hubbub the Bee news hole claimed the series had raised was in fact real.
Given journalists' tendency to report on prizes they give one another, the Pulitzer awarded to Philp and the Sacramento Bee may make the so-far illusory debate over the fate of Hetch Hetchy real.
"I just got a letter from Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, to all major donors, about the Pulitzer," says Werbach, former Sierra Club president and current executive director of the nonprofit group Common Assets. "So it's going to make a difference. You'll see the journalistic pack mentality. Since it struck in that space, now it's going to strike very many times."
And for that, Jennifer Witherspoon should be very, very proud.