As you are aware, from time to time, we ask select PR notables to weigh in on news and trends. Here’s a BIG one: How ‘bout a former Marine and Vietnam vet who got f-ed over by his own government and sold down the river by his former agency?
My kinda guy. I am pleased to introduce Doug Dowie, former head of Fleishman Hillard’s LA office. Dowie was wrongly convicted last fall of masterminding an overbilling scheme bilking the city of Los Angeles to the tune of $500K. Fleishman-Hillard took a powder and skated away virtually scot-free. Weasels. How depressing.
Well apparently, the guy can take a shot. Eying a 42-month jail term in a federal prison camp, his voice is stronger than ever. He’s already completed two screenplays. "Anonymous Sources," a political thriller, was optioned by Oscar winning producer Jonathon Sanger, who made "Elephant Man," "Vanilla Sky" and "The Producers." The second, "Conflict of Interest," is loosely based on his case. Here, we’ve got an exclusive of his inside perspective of the latest scandal to rock LA.
Without further ado…
By Doug Dowie
As if it didn’t already have enough on its plate over the last few months with the highly publicized departures of its publisher and editor in what seems to be ongoing and very open warfare with its owners in Chicago, the Los Angeles Times faced a new crisis this week.
Thank God! At least this one involves sex and Hollywood.
In Saturday’s paper, LA Times columnist Tim Rutten (these folks at the Times love writing about themselves) called it a “turgid little soap opera” and summarized it like this:
“Editorial Page Editor Andres Martinez resigned in pique after The Times publisher, David D. Hiller, told him he couldn't go forward with a Current section that was being guest-edited by Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Hiller intervened when it was learned that Martinez has been dating a Hollywood publicist whose firm represents the producer. In fact, the agency obtained Grazer's business after Martinez's girlfriend's boss facilitated the arrangement between the producer and The Times.”
Rutten’s been at the paper for 30 years. He’s not happy with Martinez, but I’m going to assume he’s got his facts right.
(Six Degrees of Separation Alert: The Hollywood publicist is Kelly Mullens, of the firm 42West. Earlier in her career, she worked for me at Fleishman Hillard in Los Angeles. Rutten is married to high-profile attorney Leslie Abramson. Her firm has represented Fred Muir, a long-time Times editor who I once hired at Fleishman Hillard.)
When I was a newspaper editor there was a so-called “Chinese Wall” between the news reporters their editors and the thumb-suckers who wrote opinion. At many papers, the wall has long since disappeared, along with the wall, also Chinese, I guess, that separated the newsroom from the advertising department. (“Hey, you want this paper to go out of business?”) But the wall at the Times between news and opinion was recently reinforced when it was decided that Martinez would report to the publisher, not the editor.
Anger and technology combined to exacerbate the situation at the Times. As you might expect, Martinez was one pissed off editor when the publisher decided to kill the Sunday section. No doubt about it, was a very big deal. He quit and began defending himself and hurling accusations that the news side was out to get him on the well-read local website LAObserved.com – and the Times own opinion blog. I’m often glad I was in the news business before Al Gore invented the Internet.
For obvious reasons, I’ll admit to a certain amount of schadenfreude as I’ve watched this “turgid little episode” unfold. Then I read in The New York Times yesterday that, according to one of the LA Times most senior reporters, that the LA Times has been "hypersensitive" regarding conflicts since the Staples Center debacle.
You could have fooled me.
In July 2004, the Times crucified Fleishman Hillard in a front page article based almost entirely on anonymous sources and triggered a federal investigation that ended my PR career and has me headed to federal prison. (I have maintained my innocence throughout the ordeal and I’m appealing the verdict.)
The story was seriously flawed and I believe would never have been published under the paper’s current ethics guidelines.
Six unidentified "former employees" told the paper that bills for the LA Department of Water and Power were “written up” for work that was never performed. Two of those anonymous sources said I was aware of it.
I argued those sources were seriously conflicted because of their professional positions as competitors, or their past employment and relationships at the LAT -- in some cases both -- and should have never been granted anonymity.
In fact, the only named source in the article was the daughter of a former senior editor at the LA Times, who worked at Fleishman Hillard in a very junior position for a brief period years earlier. She was hired by and reported directly to another former Times senior editor, who was never mentioned in the article.
If I had a dime for every journalist who has told me they agree the sourcing on that story was atrocious, I'd have enough money to pay my attorneys.
One of the anonymous sources was forced out of the shadows during my trial. Muir, a personal friend and former colleague of the reporters who wrote the story, testified under oath that he was indeed one of the unidentified former employees who helped destroy Fleishman Hillard's excellent reputation in LA.
Not only should Muir never been granted anonymity because of his past association with the LA Times, he had opened a business with clients he took from Fleishman Hillard when quit – shortly before the Times launched its investigation -- and was in direct competition with the agency. He’s now a senior executive at Burson-Marsteller.
The Times covered every day of the trial -- but decided not to report Muir's testimony regarding the LA Times. The Los Angeles Daily News also covered every day of the trial. They skipped Muir’s testimony about The Times, too.
(Six Degrees of Separation Alerts: Muir is married to Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assoc., a powerful LA business group. I served on her board of directors for years and chaired the committee that made its political endorsements.
The Daily News reporter was Beth Barrett. I was her boss when I was managing editor of the Daily News. In fact, her current editor also worked for me.)
It might seem ironic, but I have sympathy for Martinez. Anyone in the PR business more than two weeks knows that “relationships” between flacks and reporters are common.
And it is not unusual for PR firms to hire people who are married to reporters or editors to take advantage of these “special relationships.” When I was at FH, job applicants married to reporter or editor would make note of it on their resume, or mention it during their interview.
(Six Degrees of Separation Alert: When I was the Los Angeles bureau manager for United Press International in the early 80s, my wife was an account executive at Bob Thomas & Assoc., a local boutique agency that handled Anheaser Busch assignments in L.A. for Fleishman Hillard before it opened its office here.)
In this era of hypersensitivy about the “appearance of a conflict,” Martinez didn’t have a prayer.
An edit or and former colleague recently reminded me, "Every story has to have a good guy and a bad guy." When the LA Times decides you're the bad guy, you're pretty much screwed.
But Martinez shouldn’t be discouraged. I’m told he’s an incredibly talented journalist and he’ll have a soft landing.
Since my trial, I wrote two scripts loosely based on my ordeal: the aptly titled "Anonymous Sources," which has been optioned, and "Conflict of Interest."
I wonder if Martinez could get “Conflict of Interest” to Grazer for me?
It was a quiet week, by Strumpette standards, which will make for a blissfully short "Week in Review."
Jack O'Dwyer -- who once was a business reporter focused on corporate financial matters -- showed once again that the only issue of concern to him regarding professional associations is their finances. I'm not a member of PRSA -- never have been -- but I know scads of PRSA members who all believe they derive value from their memberships. (Why else would they keep paying annual dues?)
When I cast a critical eye on PRSA, I see a lack of recognition that the nature of public relations is changing. It was this dearth of programming and research into "new media" that led to the formation of the Society for New Communications Research; if the mainstream communication associations weren't going to provide the case studies and quantitative assessments, they would form an organization and do it themselves. But O'Dwyer rarely focuses on content. (He once proclaimed proudly to have registered over 1 million "hits" to his website without recognizing that there were dozens of distinct files on his home page alone, each of which would account for a separate hit. I've always appreciated Katie Paine's assertion that "hits" is an acronym for "how idiots track success.")
But let's stick, briefly, with finances. Some of O'Dwyer's arguments bother me, notably the ones that are based on vague generalities.
The fact that PRSA's finances are audited by an audit firm is irrelevant because some audit firms have had reputational problems, according to O’Dwyer. Has PRSA's audit firm suffered such damage? Don't know; O'Dwyer doesn't say. Does the fact that some audit firms have suffered reputational problems mean there are issues with the audit into PRSA's finances? Don't know; O'Dwyer doesn't say. He simply draws the inference: Some audit firms have been discredited, therefore we can't trust what any audit firm says about PRSA's books. Since audit firms report on the finances of every public company in the nation (just check their annual reports), I guess we can't trust anybody's financial statements. That's a pretty slippery slope.
To counter the work of PRSA's independent accountants, O'Dwyer talks to three accounting teachers. (Upon reading that, did anybody think, "Those who can't do..?") How deeply did they delve into the books? Don't know. What kind of bias did they bring to the assignment? Don't know, but I do know that one of Jack's freelance writers once wrote a scathing letter to IABC echoing O'Dwyer's criticism of an association activity -- without disclosing his relationship with O'Dwyer. Before implicitly trusting the judgment of these teachers, I would want any prior relationship disclosed. I also wonder if three college professors should be tasked with reviewing every public company’s books, since (according to O’Dwyer) we cannot trust their independent auditors.
The PRSA audit committee is a bunch of insiders, O'Dwyer says. So? Is there evidence that they are acting in anything but the association's best interests? It's my understanding that the audit committee is made up of PRSA members, not staff. They pay dues. Why would want to mask malfeasance? In a democratic system, members watch their own dues dollars. It was the volunteer member-based board at IABC – members representing the membership – that required the staff to change accounting practices. If O'Dwyer has evidence that the audit committee or any of its members have behaved improperly, let's see it. Otherwise, this is just another veiled inference without substance.
None of which means that I think O'Dwyer is necessarily wrong in his recommendations for changes to PRSA’s accounting practices. I'm no financial wizard -- far from it -- but I do believe in dues deferral. Having been through the painful change to a deferral system with IABC while I was serving on the board of the Los Angeles chapter, I learned enough about it to understand the wisdom in it. That is, I don’t have a problem with O’Dwyer’s recommendations, just some of the arguments he makes in support of them.
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