When is a PR flack not a PR flack?

When he’s “a writer living in Chapel Hill.”

That’s how Eric Johnson is described in his tag line at the end of an op-ed piece in the News & Observer on October 19 entitled “NC Needs a Patient Investment in Higher Education,” calling for continued high state spending on the UNC system. A tag line is supposed to identify the writer and tell people why his or her opinion is of significance, especially if he or she has some sort of self-interest in the subject discussed. A more appropriate tag line would have read: Eric Johnson is the Assistant Director for Communications for the Department of Student Aid at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He also used to be employed at the system’s General Administration, where his considerable talent for crafting arguments that represent the UNC establishment view first came to light. It is hard to imagine that, considering Johnson’s frequent publishing of opinions promoting the UNC system’s interests in the N&O and considering that he has a relatively high profile among media types who cover the UNC system, that the newspaper’s editors were unaware of how Johnson makes his living.  It instead appears to be a deliberate obfuscation of an opinion writer’s self-interest.

Of course, the problem could be at Johnson’s end, if he deliberately hid his real employment and interest in the topic discussed from the N&O. Either way, this was an egregious breach of journalistic ethics on somebody’s part.

I guess any day we can also expect Gene Nichol’s N&O tag line to read “a writer living in Chapel Hill.” That would certainly make UNC happy.

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