Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Media's Ancient Conflict of Interest
Access journalism thrives - then and now
A little while ago, an interviewer asked me an intriguing question about my career. When did I first feel comfortable speaking my mind? The answer was in 2016, when I left the New York Observer and began freelancing for other publications. The Observer staff position was a great opportunity for a young journalist, but for a variety of notable reasons, I had to move on. Leaving afforded me the ability to critique, more openly, some of the problems I saw in the media. One of them, I wrote about that year, was access journalism—the ability of the powerful to befriend and co-opt reporters who were happy to toss ethics to the side if it gave them proximity to someone important. This is an age-old problem, dating back to the midcentury heyday of the media, and it’s persisted across generations. Reporters cultivate insiders, and that means protecting certain favored fonts of information. These arrangements can be productive for the public—whistleblowers feed explosive information to reporters they believe will do justice to the story—but often they merely corrupt. One of my early essays that garnered some attention, for the Columbia Journalism Review, noted how John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, hosted an off-the-record soiree for 28 campaign journalists, cooking them dinner. Journalists view this as part of their job—to attend such events, to gather tips and material and forge relationships—but rarely consider how these interactions can blunt the impact of their reporting or why people like Podesta might do them in the first place.
It was with this in mind that I read Shawn McCreesh’s fascinating New York Magazine feature on Risa Heller, public relations maven. Heller, who spent the early part of her career in Chuck Schumer’s office, is now one of the most successful crisis PR professionals in America. She’s worked for Jeff Zucker, Harvey Weinstein, Mario Batali, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Sam Bankman-Friend’s parents, among many others. McCreesh is a vivid, witty writer, and he whisks us into Heller’s distinctly New York world, and how she manages the press on behalf of her notorious clients. Heller, more prosaically, also keeps a lot of real estate developers on retainer, who help fund the day-to-day operations of her office. “Even if this is the first time you’re hearing of her, you’ve likely already been spun by Heller,” McCreesh writes.
The subtext of the feature is how Heller, like other public relations officials and political operatives in her line of work, cultivates the media to win favorable coverage. Reporters quietly adore her. One New York Times reporter confessed to McCreesh she didn’t feel comfortable putting down a deposit on a wedding dress without consulting her first. Others told him they call Heller for career advice or story ideas. Some do yoga with her. Last year, Heller hosted a book party for Maggie Haberman, the star Times reporter, at her tony apartment, which McCreesh says has a resale value just under $5 million—notably, McCreesh doesn’t say in what borough it’s located, only that it has views of the East River. Heller also holds an annual office cookie-baking contest around Christmas at which her employees bake treats for a panel of guest judges. This past December, the panel included Ben Smith, the Semafor founder and former Times columnist, Frank Carone, who served as Eric Adams’ chief of staff, and Scott Stringer, the former city comptroller.
Though the story doesn’t state it plainly—it’s a stylish magazine feature, not an op-ed—these practices are all plainly corrupt. In other lines of work, they are either outright banned or frowned upon. Would a judge overseeing an important case hold a Christmas party with the plaintiff’s attorney? Would a prosecutor invite a banker over for dinner after indicting him? Reporting isn’t criminal justice, but the best of it is built on having an adversarial relationship with those in power and being a voice for those who don’t have any. Had Haberman been a candidate for office, she’d have to report the exact value of the party Heller hosted as an in-kind donation. When journalists are examining politicians, they understand that these kinds of arrangements can be dubious or at least worthy of scrutiny. If a wealthy, well-wired PR executive hosted a party for a congressman, we’d all ask what the PR executive hoped to get out of it. What influence, exactly, was she trying to buy?
Heller, it should be stated, is doing exactly what she’s supposed to do. If I were her, and had her talent for public relations, I would behave in exactly the same way. Her goal is to get results for her clients. And what are those results? More favorable press coverage, of course. It’s wonderful for Heller that she can go back to a powerful real estate developer with business before the city and tell him I just hosted a book party for a very prominent journalist. Others even ask me for career advice, ha ha. These people are in my pocket. Now here’s what I can do for you. What’s unclear from the story is who these journalists are, beyond bold-faced names like Haberman and Smith, that Heller befriended. What beats do they cover? They spoke off the record, so we’ll never know. But wouldn’t it be nice—or relevant, at least—to have that bit of information. Let’s say you are a journalist tasked with covering housing for the Times or Daily News or Wall Street Journal. You must report on the perspectives of housing activists, left-wing in ideology, and capitalism-loving real estate developers alike. You have to weigh the concerns of the tenant and the landlord. You also just did yoga with Heller or maybe took wedding advice from her or you really had a great time at the book party and want to score future invites to such a swank place. It’s only natural. You want to please her. You don’t want to make her angry. She’s got a client who wants to build a big project and it’s a bit controversial and won’t you just include this perspective or downplay this criticism or frame the story in such a way so the project comes off nicely in a publication read by millions of people? Heller gets as much time on the phone with you as she wants. The tenant activist, speaking for herself or a rather small NGO, never has a chance.
The rejoinder to this, usually, is that access is needed to do the job. Heller serves a purpose. She can help journalists. Indeed. And very good reporting can also come without Christmas parties or implied quid-pro-quo. Relationships matter, but so does the work outside of those relationships, the gathering of information in a deliberative manner. Reporters see Heller as their friend. She might feel the same way towards them. She’s also conducting a business that thrives on such friendships, or the appearance of them. Her loyalty lies with her clients who are paying her handsomely. Otherwise, how would she be Risa Heller, dominating her field? How would she pay for her apartment? Heller, in her defense, understands how these transactions work. It’s never entirely clear the journalists do.