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Nietzsche Wears an Earpiece

Ah, if only sound bites really were like aphorisms, as Tod Chambers believes. Then every time we spent ten minutes on the phone with a reporter we would be following in the footsteps of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. In fact, however, a sound bite is more like a miniature press release, and those of us who provide them are just doing our small part for the art of public relations.

Sound bites publicize a product, a person, or an idea, and their particular value comes from their simplicity. Sound bites cost very little, yet they carry considerable cultural authority. They carry this authority because journalists use them as expressions of expert judgment. Universities court quotable professors because they generate free publicity for the university; reporters like them because of the way their quotations decorate an article; and corporations pay them because of what they do for the company’s bottom line.

Take, for example, the independent telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan, who, according to his Web site, was quoted nearly 600 times in the media last year. An article in The Street says that Kagan became the “go-to guy” in telecom journalism because he has that “rare and beautiful quality that reporters treasure: He returns your call promptly, and he gives you a quotable comment you can drop in your story when you’re minutes away from deadline.” In fact, Kagan is so efficient a generator of quotations – The Street calls him “the quote-a-matic of telecom reporting” – that he can actually make a living at it.

Kagan is a “fee-based analyst,” according to his Web site. This means that “he gives interviews, analysis and insights to the media for free, and charges everyone else.” According to an article in The New York Post, a typical arrangement is for a company to pay Kagan $10,000 a month for his services. (Can you make that kind of money writing aphorisms? I don’t think so.) Reporters rarely ask Kagan about his financial arrangements. These days, in fact, they often don’t even talk to him personally. According to Kagan, reporters often just use the ready-made quotes he sends out in bulk emails on days when there is breaking news.

Pundits-for-hire are all the rage these days. The Bush administration pays conservative shills like Armstrong Williams to pimp administration policies in their newspaper columns. The Dean campaign did the same with bloggers. The pharmaceutical industry employs physicians as ” key opinion leaders.” Film studios ply pseudo-critics (so-called ” quote whores”) with gifts in exchange for favorable blurbs and reviews. Yet most pundits on the PR circuit actually need to write to get their money. Who knew that you could draw a paycheck for emitting a single sentence?

Bioethicists could take a lesson from Jeff Kagan. If you really want one of those plum consulting jobs with Pfizer, Lilly, or Dupont, forget about scholarship. Get yourself a television earpiece and some pancake make-up. Put together some pre-packaged remarks and start sending them out to reporters. Find a good speaker’s bureau and start giving lectures at industry events. If you’re lucky, you’ll soon be a quote-a-matic yourself, and your phone will be ringing off the hook.

Published on: May 15, 2006
Published in: Bioethics, Media

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