— by Christopher Johnson —
Years ago, when media organizations had sustainable business models, companies had to buy advertising in media to hype their products. But in recent years, public relations officers have succeeded in swaying media organizations to promote them free of charge, resulting in massive losses for newspapers, magazines and other outlets.
How did this happen? Somehow, journalists have become afraid to defend their turf and stand up to public relations officers.
Public relations officers and other gate-keepers have increasingly wielded power over journalists by favoring those who “play ball” and barring or blacklisting those who don’t. As Hugo Rodrigues, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists says, “journalists work around people in private companies attempting to hamper their work all the time.”
Faced with obstacles, many entertainment reporters, such as Francois Marchand of the Vancouver Sun, realize they have to “play ball” with event organizers or else lose access to artists.
The result of playing ball, however, is media coverage that increasingly resembles the propaganda output of media in Japan and China, and a free ride for companies that want to spin stories their way.
Huka Entertainment, a ragtag group from Louisiana, spent very little money on advertising their product, the Pemberton Music Festival this July. They didn’t need to. Thanks to a manipulative publicist, an exaggerating CEO, and inexperienced reporters trading truth for access, Huka managed to get free advertising from dozens of blogs and mainstream media including the Vancouver Sun and the Canadian Press, Canada’s leading wire service, which moved stories published in national media including CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and others.
I also hyped the festival in a preview story, and I often write about my pet events like Fuji Rock and Pohoda. We all love to promote our favorite bands, and Huka unrolled an awesome line-up at Pemberton. But the vacuous reports about the Pemberton festival, which read like blatant advertorials, raise questions about the declining standards of journalism in Canada. And it shows how bloggers — who tend to provide free hype in exchange for accreditation, since they often can’t afford to pay their own way — can influence the mentality and coverage of mainstream pros.
Multiple media reports quoted Huka’s CEO A.J. Niland without challenging his assertions — based on no evidence — that the festival would create jobs, earn millions in revenue, and become “Canada’s Coachella”. These “reports” — usually one-source stories — had no comments from outside sources or anyone who might question the official version of this event, or its safety, or the credibility of Niland’s embellishments.
In its post-festival package, the Vancouver Sun quoted Niland saying between 15,000 and 23,000 people attended the festival every day between Thursday and Sunday. But this photo shows only about 150 at Canadian rock legend and Tragically Hip leader Gord Downie’s show Thursday night.
Other photographic evidence suggests about 5000 people attended the festival. Yet I’ve found no accredited reporter questioning Huka’s attendance figures of 75,000.
What’s worse, nobody is publicly questioning Huka’s version of events concerning the suspicious fate of Nick Phongsawath, 21, an engineering student at the University of Regina found dead in the festival’s campsite Friday evening.
Did any accredited “journalist” even privately investigate what really happened to Phongsawath?
Most of the “reporters” on site did not even go to the campground to talk to anyone who might know the deceased person. (After all, they were busy watching Nine Inch Nails.)
They also ignored multiple complaints online about festival organizers forcing campers to hike one hour (3 km) with heavy camping gear in debilitating heat.
Yet no accredited media publicly questioned whether the camper Phongsawath might have died of heat stroke, drug overdose or other causes directly related to the actions of festival organizers.
In fact, many reporters continued to tweet about enjoying the festival, and many made no public mention of the death, which continued to be a top story across Canada the following day.
Editors and producers across Canada were hungry for images, photos and in-depth coverage of this tragedy. Even though they had an accredited, award-winning reporter on site with camera equipment, Canadian Press editors moved only a few paragraphs of a bare-bones report, and they perpetuated Huka’s myth that 25,000 were on site on Friday, when photographic evidence indicated no more than 5000.
More importantly, the accredited media didn’t raise questions about police conduct. They trumpeted the US-based Huka group’s statement that the RCMP had total confidence in their handling of events. It was a second-hand statement, from the organizers, not the RCMP. But many media outlets reported this as a fact.
Police now claim there was no foul play in the death. If so, then how did a 21-year old male — healthy enough to get from Regina to the west coast — die suddenly and suspiciously on Friday?
The Vancouver Sun, Canadian Press, and other organizations have done no follow-up, asked no questions, nor shown much interest in reporting evidence-based facts about the festival. They don’t seem to care if Phongsawath has friends and family in Canada, Thailand, Laos or wherever.
Trovato — who repeatedly insulted and threatened reporters — and other Huka staff effectively muzzled Canadian media coverage of a suspicious death at an unsafe event. When one brave reporter stood up to her in defense of journalists, Trovato hounded her around the site, saying “I’ll be watching your every move” and sending her a nasty text message saying “I’m very disappointed in you.”
Huka and Trovato also used the RCMP to intimidate this reporter and remove me from public land around the festival site.
Yet many accredited media applauded the work of Huka. They did assemble a great line-up of performers, who basically convinced reporters to turn off their minds and not care about the real world. For accredited media, the Pemberton Music Festival was a boondoggle, a drink-drug-and-dance fest courtesy of Huka and their PR team. The attitude was essentially: ‘get high, get laid, break up with your partner, but don’t do any real journalism work this weekend.’
Not only did accredited media blatantly lie for Huka or hide the truth from their customers, their media organizations didn’t even gain advertising revenue or increased readership.
Basically, they sold out, for free.
Truth-seeking readers pay for it.
And if this trend continues, reporters and editors will pay for it in wage reductions and job losses.