Last night at the Wealthy Theatre, author, researcher, and activist Sheldon Rampton of the Center for Media and Democracy returned to Grand Rapids to speak about public relations and propaganda. In his approximately 45-minute lecture, Rampton examined public relations both in the service of corporations—where it is traditionally seen—and in the service of the United States government, where there has been an increase over the past several years. Rampton’s examination of public relations in the service of government focused on the war on Iraq and the campaign to convince those living within the United States that it was a necessary war, a campaign that is the subject of Rampton’s recently released book, The Best War Ever.
Rampton began by giving a brief overview of the history of the public relations industry in the United States, whose origins date back to the time of World War I and the establishment of the Creel Commission to propagandize on the idea that the United States should get involved in the war despite the fact that then President Woodrow Wilson had run on a campaign promise that he would not lead the United States into the war. The Creel Commission pioneered the concept of mass persuasion and used a variety of techniques including promoting war bonds at movie screenings, art, radio, and even the famous “Uncle Sam” posters to build public support for the war. After the war and the PR campaign, some of those involved with the Creel Commission—including Edward Bernays who has been called the father of public relations—went on to put their persuasion techniques into the service of private corporations in the railroad, tobacco, soap, and other industries. Moreover, Bernays developed the theory that public relations were necessary to shape and mold public opinion as means of promoting a smooth and functioning democracy, as the masses of people were ill informed and could not be trusted. Rampton explained that this model is known as the “Propaganda Model of Communication,” describing it as a system and technique of communications based on the idea that there is a privileged communicator who is more of an expert than the audience receiving the messages. Rampton argued that this model is inherently anti-democratic and presupposes the inferiority of the audience and is thereby the antithesis of the “Democratic Model of Communication” that believes that everyone is rational and should be involved in the discussion.
The “Propaganda Model of Communication” also affects the communicator according to Rampton, and by assuming that they are always right the communicator’s knowledge is limited. Rampton argued that we have seen this effect with the administration of President George W. Bush, who repeated its own PR statements—or spin—to the point that they actually started to believe their own spin. This has resulted in a series of strategic errors in Iraq including the belief that Iraqis would greet the United States as liberators. As such, rather than preparing for the realities of occupying an entire country, the Pentagon distributed press statements to soldiers to repeat to the media stating that “we are not an occupying Army” to stress that message while ignoring the reality. Similarly, chaos and looting after the fall of Baghdad was dismissed as an act of liberation with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stating that “freedom is messy” while missing the fact that this created the environment (in part) for the insurgency. Rampton also pointed out that the war’s planners and supporters thought that the war would be short and cost little as the costs could be covered by Iraq’s oil revenues, with one estimate putting the cost at only $1.7 billion total while it costs around $6 billion per month.
Public relations were also used to promote the assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), despite no substantive evidence to support the claim. $200 million was spent on a campaign to find WMDs in Iraq, but nothing was ever found. Yet, despite the fact that no weapons were found, much of the public still believes that the United States did find WMDs in Iraq. Rampton argues that this is a result of the media’s uncritical echoing of the government’s rhetoric. As an example, he cited the media’s reporting of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech and numbers as “proof” of the case despite the fact that it was largely empty rhetoric. This setup a situation wherein embedded reporters in Iraq believed that they were going to find WMDs in Iraq and there were consequently a barrage of reports of “found WMDs” that turned out to be incorrect, but rather than prominently feature these corrections, they were buried in newspapers and newscasts. All of this has occurred despite the fact that the Bush administration gave specific amounts and even said where the WMDs were located. However, once it became clear that they would not be found, the administration—and the media—switched their rhetoric to explain that they were looking for “programs” rather than weapons, and when they found no evidence of those, the vague “WMD program-related activity.” Even the resignation of the administration’s chief weapons inspector, David Kay, was managed as a PR event, with his resignation being delayed at the request of the administration in order to not convey the idea that they didn’t know what was going on in Iraq.
The Bush administration has used PR techniques to replace the original rationales for the war—that there were WMDs, that Saddam has ties to al-Qaida, and that the United States would be greeted as liberators—to cover-up their errors, now stating that they were wrong about WMDs but so were others, that if the United States leaves now al-Qaida will run Iraq, and that leaving now would mean all of the lives lost thus far were in vain. The statements all negate the original arguments while at the same time they do not engage them, underlying the ways in which PR often seeks to subtly manipulate opinion by leaving out critical pieces of information. Moreover, in recent weeks with Bush’s statements that the United States will win in Iraq unless they leave, the Bush administration is again using PR techniques of repeating the rhetoric of “victory” in the absence of a real strategy in an attempt to maintain some semblance of support for the war. However, Rampton asserted that the only solution now is some type of phased withdrawal and that the reality is that the future of the occupation of Iraq depends on the events in Iraq and the actions of the United States’ public.