Which Side Are You On?

The folks at Florida State College at Jacksonville thought they hit the jackpot with Celine McArthur. The sunny former anchor at CBS 47 was a familiar face, an articulate spokesperson and an assured presence on the school’s Converged Communication’s classroom broadcast. Her official job description refers to her as the “college’s chief storyteller.” But there’s one item on McArthur’s résumé that might have given the school pause: investigative reporter.

In the last several weeks, Celine has gone from being the school’s blonde Girl Friday to its bête noire. Following a series of letters critical of the school’s administration — letters that included allegations of mismanagement, waste and deception — the school suspended her. School officials claim that their decision predated her public assault, and there’s no doubt that in her communications with her bosses, McArthur comes across as, well, difficult. But the school’s claims of “gross insubordination” are undercut by the series of damning news reports about the very concerns McArthur was flagging in her letters: a top administrator double-dipping while simultaneously working at FSCJ and Essex Community College in New York, accreditation problems in the school’s nursing program, and the stunning revelations that students receiving financial aid might need to repay some $2.8 million in Pell Grants.

The school suspended McArthur in March, and plans to officially fire her next month. In the interim, she has turned her full energies toward exposing the school as dishonest, foolish and vengeful. In a blog (CelineMcArthurInvestigates.com) and on Twitter (@CelineMcArthur), she’s infused the art of public takedown with a reporter’s zeal for documents and a news anchor’s theatrical sensibility. The blog features correspondence, emails and state audits alongside a countdown clock listing the days until her official termination, and melodramatic flourishes (she signs off one blog post, “I shall return. Céline.”) She’s even managed to turn an animated video she helped make — one that shows FSCJ’s two top officials, Don Green and Steve Wallace, squandering money — into an embarrassment for the school.

McArthur’s case isn’t ordinary, but it throws into stark relief a circumstance faced by many former journalists who suddenly find themselves working the other side of the news equation — public relations. Reporters forced or bought out during the economic and digital unraveling of the news industry have migrated to public relations in huge numbers. In their recent book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols found that the number of working journalists has fallen by about a third since 1980, while public relations jobs have more than doubled. The current ratio of flaks to reporters is now more than three-to-one.

While some outside (and even inside) journalism view this as a natural progression, the kinship is more firefighter/arsonist than doctor/plastic surgeon. Reporters — good ones — are constitutionally jaundiced, skeptical of polished press releases and the spinmeisters who peddle them. Indeed, newsroom denizens tend to regard PR agents with the same hostile impatience that busy families regard telemarketers. But because both sides work with words and “stories,” the disciplines are often seen as two sides of the same coin.

There may be something to that, as long as a reporter is working within the realm of “good news.” But as soon as the story becomes something that might embarrass an institution, business or elected official, the disparity becomes pronounced. Journalists want information and candor. PR agents want to control — and often manipulate — the narrative. One is tasked with exposing, the other protecting.

The professional dissonance caused by crossing over can be acute. Abel Harding, who left his job as a political reporter at the Times-Union to (briefly) become a spokesperson for Mayor Alvin Brown, was given the unenviable task of fielding queries from former colleagues about Brown’s inexplicable campaign contributions (some $30,000 over several years, despite his modest salary), which listed Brown as an attorney. Harding’s job was made more difficult by the mayor’s refusal to answer questions about the matter in person, even dodging a reporter who waited four hours to speak to him. Former T-U reporter David DeCamp, who took over for Harding, has found himself similarly conflicted in recent weeks, as the mayor refused to release drafts of his budget or his downtown reorganization plan — both public records. DeCamp was even in the position, just hours before the budget was given to the City Council, of denying that any draft existed.

The discomfort of delivering such whoppers must be particularly acute for DeCamp, who as a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times was tasked with administering the “Truth-o-meter” on that paper’s PolitiFact.com blog. But his options are limited, unless he wants to walk away from the job. His task is to deliver the message for the administration. And if they give him bogus information, then his message will be bogus, too.

It would be nice to think that the thousands of reporters who’ve made the transition to public relations could inhabit the space without compromise. Even if they can’t, it’s worth remembering that their skills, though dormant, haven’t atrophied. The best reporters of this generation may be selling out in droves, or they may just be biding their time — gathering documents, taking notes and preparing for their next big exposé.

Anne Schind

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Twitter @schindy