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Chilling new proposal for PR professionals

Man walking with a briefcase.

Man walking with a briefcase. Credit: iStock

Thousands of important conversations take place every day in America that the public never learns about. They are between reporters and their sources, and the conversations account for a very large percentage of what we read, watch and hear in our daily news consumption.

But a chilling new proposal coming out of Albany this year, in the name of ethics reform, would jeopardize many of those relationships and the free flow of information materializing from them.

The state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics is seeking to force New York public relations professionals to register as lobbyists if they talk to reporters or news editors about public affairs issues.

Here’s JCOPE: A public relations consultant who contacts a reporter or editorial board in an attempt to get the media outlet to advance the client’s message would also be delivering a message. Any attempt by a consultant to induce a third-party — whether the public or the press — to deliver the client’s lobbying message to a public official would constitute lobbying under these rules.

Under JCOPE’s proposal — which would not require the State Legislature’s approval but a stroke of the Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s pen to be enacted — communications professionals would have to file a monthly report with the state, detailing every conversation they’ve had with anyone in the news industry. That report would have to include the subject matter discussed, just as with all lobbyists. Failure to do so could result in prohibitive fines.

That’s a universally terrible idea, and almost certainly an unconstitutional one. Let’s for a moment focus on the implications in the political arena.

Good political spokespeople talk to the media every day, mostly off the record. They do so to advance their candidates’ messages, and, almost more important to the health of our republic, to surreptitiously deliver information that they’ve gathered about opponents. If the source is trusted, the news professional will run down the leads to check their validity.

If that sounds like a dirty game, consider the fact that the Watergate scandal came to light from a press leak. Almost all scandals come to light that way. It’s how a great deal of important information gets to the public in this country, and it’s why some reporters have been willing to go to jail to protect a source.

This doesn’t apply just to politics. It applies to all industries. Pretend I’m representing an automobile manufacturer who learns that a rival car company is cheating on its emissions standards. Am I going to leak that information if I know the conversation with Autoweek is going to be public record? I’m not, because Ford or Fiat or Subaru would never allow one of its spokesman to publicly charge Chevy or Toyota or Hyundai with committing a crime.

Things just don’t work that way.

Imagine a JCOPE log:

Tuesday, Jan. 4: Spoke with Ted Baxter at WJM-TV in Minneapolis on behalf of Acme toilets about the benefits of amending water flow laws.

Wednesday, Jan. 5: Leaked information to Les Nessman at WKRP in Cincinnati suggesting that Sen. Joseph Paine might be on the North Korean payroll, on behalf of People for Tracy Flick.

Thursday, Jan. 6: Gave Clark Kent at the Daily Planet information about a floating craps game in town to butter him up for a story I’m pitching him next month for Friends of the Feathered Ones about a bill to eradicate geese in city parks.

James Madison is groaning beneath the sod.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.