I Refuse To Believe That A Site Making Libertarians Look Cool Could Be The Work Of A PR Agency
Many bloggers -- most of them conservative/Libertarian, but not all of them -- have contributed articles to Tech Central Station, a libertarian-leaning website that takes on various issues of the day by means of lots and lots of articles written by lots and lots of people.
Today, Nick Confessore wrote a story in the Washington Monthly about the fact that Tech Central Station is owned and operated by a Washington-based public relations firm, DCI Group L.L.C.
Several of the afore-mentioned bloggers got a little worked up about this, and have written various defenses of the site.
Here's the funny thing: everyone's defense is roughly the same, and they all miss the point in the same way.
Glenn Reynolds: "All I'll say is that I've written for TCS for nearly two years, and they've never told me what to write."
Megan McArdle: "...I've never been told what to write -- other than a request to focus on a topic Nick Schulz thought was timely and important -- or how to write it."
Michael Totten: "...no one on this Earth tells me what to think or what to write. That includes Nick Shulz, the editor of Tech Central Station."
Dan Drezner: "...I've never been told by anyone at Tech Central Station to alter the substantive content of my essays to reflect advertiser positions..."
I sense a pattern.
In all fairness, these are actually perfectly reasonable reactions to the article - PR firms are not known as shining champions of truth, and everyone wants to defend their own integrity.
But here's why it doesn't matter that none of the bloggers who have contributed to Tech Central Station have been cajoled into sexing up their articles: They're the cover.
No, this is not strange conspiracy talk. It's simply an application of what we already know about the tactics of PR firms.
Think about it. You're a PR guy, and you specialize in astroturf. You start up organizations like Poor People United For Increased Executive Pay, and use them to make it appear, both to politicians and to the public, that certain groups and ideas have more popular backing than they actually do. You also manage to squeeze the occasional Op-Ed into the paper that, remarkably, agrees with the policy stances of the people who are paying you.
Unfortunately for you as a PR bigshot, people are starting to see through some of this astroturf nonsense, and when they do, it makes your clients look very bad.
What to do?
I know what I'd do.
I would start a web magazine, one with a slick layout and accesible features, and start publishing.
Publishing what? Let's see - the idea is to fill the thing with real articles in order to acquire legitimacy so that whenever a client wants some theme pushed, I can just slip an article in, and then blastfax it across the country with a tagline saying it was published in my now-reputable web magazine.
Where could I find a large group of people willing to write articles on various policy issues for little pay, people big enough to give my magazine respectability, but small enough that an occasional article by someone no one has ever heard of wouldn't occasion comment?
Now, I have a legitimate policy forum up and running, and if the coal industry wants to start using tactical nuclear devices for excavation -- and they pay me enough money -- I just throw in an article by "David Eldersmith, a nuclear expert and blogger from New Hampshire" that talks about the critical shortage of cheap coal in this country, how politicians are starting to fear the wrath of coal-starved constituents, and the magic nuclear bullet that could solve all our coal woes if only someone would champion the little guy and stand up to the anti-nuclear lobby in Washington. Send it to journalists across the country, who quote various lines from the article and attribute them to "David Eldersmith, writing for ____ ".
As an added bonus, since several of the contributors are major bloggers, the articles in my magazine zip through the blogosphere at lightspeed, a not-insignificant bit of mainstream publicity as more and more journalists start paying attention to blogs.
Is this the way Tech Central Station works? I don't know. But the fact that it's a creation of a PR firm- which I seriously doubt puts up a chunk of the funding just so various libertarian bloggers can point and say "Cool!" - makes the above scenario entirely plausible.
And that, friends, is why the Confessore article is significant.
Update: Pre-emptive response to anticipated objections:
No, I don't think the bloggers who write for TCS are knowingly fronting for a PR firm. Except for Yglesias. I don't trust that liberal bastard.
No, I don't literally think the coal industry will try to use tactical nukes, nor do I think a defense of such would appear on TCS. That was a generic template of the kind of thing I imagine a PR firm would do for any given issue.
No, I'm not saying you can never trust a TCS article again. I am saying that articles on TCS by writers with whom you are unfamiliar should be treated gingerly. Be aware that a PR firm -- one notorious for less-than-honest practices -- is calling the shots around there.
Yes, I acknowledge the possibility that TCS is completely on the up-and-up, and that its source of funding really doesn't affect the way in which it is run. But, again, it's a PR firm that has the ultimate say-so over there, and I don't trust PR firms. Neither should you. It should also be noted that, while the subtle change in this TCS disclosure is not conclusive evidence of anything, it is somewhat shady.