Media manipulation and the OHA scandal

Graphic by | Joan McGuire

The Oregon Health Authority scandal: a cautionary tale for journalists and communications professionals alike.

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What would have happened if Portland Tribune reporter Nick Budnick hadn’t uncovered the OHA plan to plant negative stories about the FamilyCare coordinated care organization? 

The plan was a draft, so we’ll never know how much of the strategy would have showed up in reporters’ inboxes. One thing is certain: However scandalous the reveal, the form of the draft communications proposal was mundane. Journalists receive dozens of marketing pitches every day, and the majority hew closely to the multi-pronged OHA format.

The elements of a classic pitch, with examples taken from the OHA draft plan, are as follows: 

Use a proxy to pitch the story: OHA planned to use lobbyists and legislators to propose stories trashing FamilyCare.

Humanize stories with a first person, everyman appeal: OHA suggested journalists capitalize on testimony from Medicaid clients.

Get an expert to pen an op-ed:  Chief Lynne Saxton was charged with writing a column on the subject for The Lund Report, a respected health care publication.

Use data to support anecdotal claims: To establish scientific credibility, stories were to include infographics highlighting CCO cash reserves and investments.

To be sure, most journalists cast a skeptical eye toward pitches flooding our email accounts. To vet the proposals, we contextualize and seek out opposing viewpoints. Transparency is key: Who’s behind the pitch, and what’s their stake in the story?

But the sheer volume of pitches, and I include in this category press releases, means reporters are swimming against the tide. A pitch is not a news tip, but the line distinguishing the two blurred long ago. Social media platforms do double duty as journalism and PR; under pressure to feed the insatiable digital media beast, journalists latch on to ready made articles; and brands and government agencies now produce their own “storytelling,” designed to read and sound like objective journalism.

Related Story: The Diaspora: Former reporters move into brand journalism

Budnick’s reporting relied on a public records request, a time-honored and time-consuming reporting strategy. In the effort to ferret out the truth, slow and steady wins the race.

None of this is to tar marketing professionals with a broad brush. We journalists are too often caught up in a racket of our own making, and many communications staffers work hard to come up with bona fide, newsworthy story ideas.

Plus, the Health Authority story is less about PR hustlers than Machiavellian government propaganda.

But the OHA scandal is a cautionary tale, for journalists and marketers alike. A draft communications plan cost a respected agency head (Saxton) her job. The plan also revealed a blueprint for media manipulation, a blueprint that shows up in reporters’ inboxes every single day.  


Another government-linked communications scandal hit the fan this week, although this one is less a scandal than a head-scratcher. An off-pitch pedestrian safety video released a few days ago put the onus of safety on pedestrians and presented such deadly driving behaviors as texting and DUI as objects of satire. The spot unfolds as a Portlandia skit, no surprise as it was produced by the show’s director, David Cress. The Portland Bureau of Transportation and other agencies that funded the video have since distanced themselves from the PSA, BikePortland reports. 

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