A Spin Doctor to the Rich and Corrupt Spills His Secrets

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Elwood, the son of a minister, feels he has arrived when he finds himself among Yoko Ono, Donald Trump and Barbara Walters at a Christmas party in 2008 hosted by Brown in his grand apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan. But like the protagonist of a 19th-century bildungsroman, or perhaps a 20th-century movie starring Charlie Sheen, Elwood begins to lose his bearings, not to mention what is left of his innocence, as he tries to please his demanding boss and his more demanding clients, one of whom is a son of Qaddafi. Increasingly, he quiets his moral qualms with alcohol.

Journalism professors will weep when they come across Elwood’s analysis of the media ecosystem. As he tells it, news gatherers are simply “outgunned” by their counterparts. There are 300,000 public relations employees in the United States, he writes, most of whom are much better paid than the nation’s estimated 40,000 journalists.

“My industry is worth $129 billion,” he adds. “We will do anything to earn those billions.”

Rather than trying to muscle reporters into writing propaganda or puff pieces, Elwood is savvy enough to go with a soft-sell strategy, heavy on charm, nuggets of exclusive information and expense-account dinners, in the hope that a mere 50.1 percent of a published article will favor the people whose images he is trying to burnish or whose misdeeds he is hoping to bury. This approach keeps his clients happy, or happy enough, while encouraging scoop-hungry reporters to come back for more.

The book has its longueurs but picks up narrative steam when Elwood describes how the grind of providing cover for bad actors takes its toll. Filled with regret about some of the things he has done, and finding himself the potential target of a federal investigation because of public relations work he’s performed for a group of ex-spies, he becomes suicidal. After receiving a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, he undergoes a lengthy ketamine treatment.

In the book’s mostly happy ending, Elwood does not suddenly switch teams to join the ranks of righteous journalists. He’s no sap. But now, instead of lending his talents to any rogue with a bag of cash, he throws himself into worthier campaigns. One of them comes in the service of Ukrainians fighting Russia’s invasion. Another is an effort to change the public perception of ketamine from a good-time party drug to an effective treatment for people suffering from depression.


ALL THE WORST HUMANS: How I Made News for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians | By Phil Elwood | Henry Holt | 252 pp. | $28.99

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