Most Americans are completely unaware of the role professionally crafted press releases play in modern media. With shrinking news staffs and 24 hours-a-day news cycles, most news outlets find themselves with a lot of blank newsprint/airtime/website space to fill every day.
Many of these sites could not survive without PR press releases, which arrive in their e-mail pre-formatted, spell checked and pre-edited.
All the media outlet has to do is copy and paste, and voila! Instant content. Some will go as far as to slap a fig leaf on the release, in the form of a local “reporter” byline and maybe a local reference or two, but most won’t perform even the most rudimentary fact checks before passing the press release on as “news”.
In effect, special interest groups get to write their own “news” articles about themselves. The Southern Poverty Law Center is no exception. The SPLC sends out print and video press releases on a regular basis via paid public relations firms like PRNewswire, USNewswire, and Taylor Media Services (TMS).
These press releases are then picked up by news aggregators like the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters, which pass them along to their thousands of customers without checking a single fact. In fact, at this point, the press release, written by the special interest groups themselves, now picks up an AP or Reuters byline, giving the entire bogus document a patina of credibility.
Now, if you’re going to write your own news articles you’ll want to have them written by a pro, especially when there are hundreds of millions of donor dollars at stake. The SPLC hired former freelance reporter Mark Potok.
Potok has been writing PR copy for the SPLC for a dozen years, despite having no legal or law enforcement background. He must be doing something right as the SPLC’s “Endowment Fund” tallied over $200 million donor dollars in 2007, (although it too was a victim of the current recession and now languishes at a mere $151 million.)
For his modest efforts, Potok is compensated with more than $143,000 donor dollars each year, according to page 40 the SPLC’s most recent IRS Form 990. For that kind of money, it’s little wonder Mr. Potok sees “hate groups” behind every rock and tree. There’s gold in them thar “haters”.
So efficient is Mr. Potok in promoting the SPLC’s latest fund raising “news stories” that almost everything you read, see or hear about the SPLC will have been written, in part or in total, by Mark Potok or a member of his staff.
When you read that the SPLC is a “premier civil rights watchdog” or that Mark Potok is a “civil rights expert,” you’re reading the words of Mark Potok. Every press release Potok writes will include a similar reference, conferring an air of authority to whatever denunciations or smears he is uttering at the time.
Is this illegal? No. All special interest groups and money making organizations do it. The problem with such a system is that 99% of the public have no idea that the vast majority of “news” they consume is actually skillfully crafted advertising copy.