Special: Interview: John Stauber: ‘The War On Truth: The Secret Battle For The American Mind’

Australian academic Alex Carey once wrote that “the twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” As editor of the quarterly investigative journal PR Watch and founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, John Stauber exposes how public relations works and helps people to understand it. The Sun Magazines’ Derrick Jensen poses the questions and holds audience within.

Australian academic Alex Carey once wrote that “the twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” As editor of the quarterly investigative journal PR Watch and founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, John Stauber exposes how public relations works and helps people to understand it. The Sun Magazines’ Derrick Jensen poses the questions and holds audience within.

In societies like ours, corporate propaganda is delivered through advertising and public relations. Most people recognize that advertising is propaganda. We understand that whoever paid for and designed an ad wants us to think or feel a certain way, vote for a certain candidate, or purchase a certain product. Public relations, on the other hand, is much more insidious. Because it’s disguised as information, we often don’t realize we are being influenced by public relations. But this multi-billion-dollar, transnational industry’s propaganda campaigns affect our private and public lives every day.

As editor of the quarterly investigative journal PR Watch and founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, John Stauber, however, hasn’t always been a watchdog journalist. He has actually been more diverse, having worked for more than twenty years as an activist and organizer for various causes: the environment, peace, social justice, neighborhood concerns. Eventually, it dawned on him that public opinion on every issue he cared about was being managed by influential, politically connected PR operatives with nearly limitless budgets. “Public relations is a perversion of the democratic process,” he says. “I knew I had to fight it.”

Derrick Jensen: How is a propaganda war waged?

John Stauber: The key is invisibility. Once propaganda becomes visible, it’s less effective. Public relations is effective in manipulating opinion — and thus public policy — only if people believe that the message covertly delivered by the PR campaign is not propaganda at all but simply common sense or accepted reality.

In order to confuse the public and manipulate opinion and policy to their advantage, corporations spend billions of dollars a year hiring PR firms to cultivate the press, discredit their critics, spy on and co-opt citizens’ groups, and use polls to find out what images and messages will resonate with target audiences.

For obvious reasons, public relations is a secretive industry. PR firms don’t like to reveal their clients. Some of them, though, can be identified. Here’s a list of just a tiny fraction of the clients represented by Burson-Marsteller, the world’s largest PR firm: NBC, Philip Morris, Trump Enterprises, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels in Angola, Occidental Petroleum, American Airlines, the state of Alaska, Genentech, the Ford Motor Company, the Times Mirror Company, MCI, the National Restaurant Association, Coca-Cola, the British Columbia timber industry, Dow Corning, General Electric, Hydro-Qu‚bec, Monsanto, AT&T, British Telecom, Chevron, DuPont, IBM, Warner-Lambert, Visa, Seagram, SmithKline Beecham, Reebok, Proctor & Gamble, Glaxo, Campbell’s Soup, the Olympics, Nestle, Motorola, Gerber, Eli Lilly, Caterpillar, Sears, Beretta, Pfizer, Metropolitan Life, McDonnell Doug-las, and the governments of Kenya, Indonesia, Argentina, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Italy, Mexico, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.

Wow. Well that list encompasses everything from biotechnology to genocide to jet-skis.

In its latest reporting year, Burson-Marsteller claimed more than a quarter of a billion dollars in net fees from its clients. And it’s only one of a number of PR firms owned by the Young & Rubicam advertising agency. Other top-ten PR firms include Hill & Knowlton, Shandwick, Porter/Novelli, Fleishman-Hillard, Edelman, and Ketchum – companies that most of us have never heard of, but whose influence we’ve all felt.

Burson-Marsteller alone has twenty-two hundred PR flacks — or public-relations practitioners — in more than thirty countries. In its promotional materials, the firm says its international operations are “linked together electronically and philosophically to deliver a single standard of excellence.” It claims that “the role of communications is to manage perceptions which motivate behaviors that create business results,” and that its mission is to help clients “manage issues by influencing — in the right combination — public attitude, public perceptions, public behavior and public policy.”

But if it’s not illegal and everyone uses it, what’s wrong with public relations?

There’s nothing wrong with much of what is done in public relations, like putting out press releases, calling members of the press, arguing a position, or communicating a message. Everyone, myself included, who’s trying to get an idea across, market a product, or influence other citizens uses techniques that fit the definition of public relations. After all, the industry grew out of the democratic process of debate and decision making.

Today, however, public relations has become a huge, powerful, hidden medium available only to wealthy individuals, big corporations, governments and government agencies because of its high cost. And the purpose of these campaigns is not to facilitate democracy or promote social good, but to increase power and profitability for the clients paying the bills. This overall management of public opinion and policy by the few is completely contrary to, and destructive of, democracy.

How do PR firms get away with planting [their positions] in news stories?

Journalism is in drastic decline. It’s become a lousy profession. The commercial media are greed-driven enterprises dominated by a dozen transnational companies. Newsroom staffs have been downsized. Much of what you see on national and local TV news is actually video news releases prepared by public-relations firms and given free to TV stations and networks. News directors air these PR puff pieces disguised as news stories because it’s a free way to fill airtime and allows them to lay off reporters. Of course, it’s not just television that’s the problem. Academics who study public relations report that half or more of what appears in newspapers and magazines is lifted verbatim from press releases generated by public-relations firms.

Why don’t we read more about these hidden manipulations in the news?

Primarily because the mainstream, corporate news media are dependent on public relations. Half of everything in the news actually originates from a PR firm. If you’re a lazy journalist, editor or news director, it’s easy to simply regurgitate the dozens of press releases and stories that come in every day for free from PR firms.

Remember, the media’s primary source of income is the more than $100 billion a year corporations spend on advertising. The PR firms are owned by advertising agencies, so the same companies that are producing billions of dollars in advertising are the ones pitching stories to the news media, cultivating relationships with reporters, and controlling reporters’ access to the executives and companies they represent. In fact, of the 160,000 or so PR flacks in the United States, maybe a third began their careers as journalists. Who better to manipulate the media than former reporters and editors? Investigative journalist Mark Dowie estimates that professional PR flacks actually outnumber real working journalists in the United States.

[Journalists have] become dependent on PR firms for the stories they do write. All journalists know, if you want to investigate a corporation, you eventually have to talk with someone there. Unless you belong to the same country club as the top executives, you’re going to pick up the phone and get the “vice-president of communications” — i.e., a public-relations flack. You need this person’s help. This probably isn’t the last story you’ll do on this corporation. If you write a hard-hitting piece, no one at that corporation will ever speak to you again. What’s that going to do to your ability to write about that industry? What’s it going to do to your career?

Some PR companies — such as Carma International and Video Monitoring Service — specialize in monitoring news stories and journalists. They can immediately evaluate all print, radio and television coverage of a subject to determine which stories were favorable to corporate interests, who the reporters were, who their bosses are, and so on. The PR firms then rank reporters as favorable or unfavorable to their clients’ interests, and cultivate relationships with cooperative reporters while punishing those whose reporting is critical. Certain PR firms will provide dossiers on reporters so that, between the time a reporter makes an initial phone call and the time a company’s vice-president of communications calls back, the company will have found out the name of the reporter’s supervisor, all about the reporter’s family and background and other pertinent information.

It seems the main thrust of the PR business is to get the public to ignore atrocities.

Tom Buckmaster, the chairman of Hill & Knowlton, once stated explicitly the single most important rule of public relations: “Managing the outrage is more important than managing the hazard.” From a corporate perspective, that’s absolutely right. A hazard isn’t a problem if you’re making money off it. It’s only when the public becomes aware and active that you have a problem, or, rather, a PR crisis in need of management.

We often hear charitable giving referred to as “good public relations.” How does this work?

Corporations want us to believe that they are concerned, moral “corporate citizens” — whatever that means. So businesses pump millions of dollars into charities and nonprofit organizations to deceive us into thinking that they care and are making things better. On top of that, corporate charity can buy the tacit cooperation of organizations that might otherwise be expected to criticize corporate policies. Some PR firms specialize in helping corporations to defeat activists, and cooptation is one of their tools.

Some years ago, in a speech to clients in the cattle industry, Ron Duchin, senior vice-president of the PR firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin (which represents probably a quarter of the largest corporations in the world), outlined his firm’s basic divide-and-conquer strategy for defeating any social-change movement. Activists, he explained, fall into three basic categories: radicals, idealists and realists. The first step in his strategy is to isolate and marginalize the radicals. They’re the ones who see the inherent structural problems that need remedying if indeed a particular change is to occur. To isolate them, PR firms will try to create a perception in the public mind that people advocating fundamental solutions are terrorists, extremists, fear-mongers, outsiders, communists or whatever. After marginalizing the radicals, the PR firm then identifies and “educates” the idealists — concerned and sympathetic members of the public — by convincing them that the changes advocated by the radicals would hurt people. The goal is to sour the idealists on the idea of working with the radicals and instead get them working with the realists.

Realists, according to Duchin, are people who want reform but don’t really want to upset the status quo; big public-interest organizations that rely on foundation grants and corporate contributions are a prime example. With the correct handling, Duchin says, realists can be counted on to cut a deal with industry that can be touted as a “win-win” solution, but that is actually an industry victory.

Why does this strategy keep working?

In part, because we don’t have a watchdog press that aggressively investigates and exposes PR lies and deceptions. Its success is also a reflection of the sorry state of democracy in our society. We really have a single corporate party with two wings, both funded by wealthy special interests. On the critical issues – taxation, health care, foreign policy — there’s rarely much disagreement. If there is, more special-interest money floods in to make sure the corporate agenda wins out. On a deeper level, we all want to believe these lies. Wouldn’t it be great to wake up and find ourselves living in a functioning democracy? To be truly represented by our so-called Representatives? Not to have to worry about the destruction of the biosphere or the safety of the water we drink and the food we eat? I think we all buy in because we want to believe things aren’t as bad as they really are.

The reality is, though, that the U.S. political and social environment is corrupt and deeply dysfunctional. Structural reforms must be made in our political and economic system in order to assert the rights of citizens over corporations. But since big corporations dominate the media, we’re not going to hear about this on network news or in the New York Times. We’re not going to hear about it from politicians who are bought and paid for by wealthy interests. The beginning of the solution is for people to recognize that it’s not enough to send checks in response to direct-mail solicitations from politicians and public-interest groups. We need to become real citizens and get personally involved in reclaiming our country.

Derrick Jensen is a journalist and book author. His latest book is “A Language Older Than Words” (Context Books).

A longer version of this interview was first published in The Sun in March, 1999..

Author: John Stauber

News Service: MediaChannel

URL: http://www.oneworld.net/anydoc2.cgi?u=http://www.mediachannel.org/views/interviews/stauber.shtml|root=528