Falsies Highlight PR Misdeeds

TThe Falsies–annual awards handed out by the public relations watchdog Center for Media and Democracy–are a fun way at looking at some of the worst of PR. This year, the Falsies focus attention on the pundits who sold the Iraq War for the Pentagon, the media’s reluctance to report Iraqi casualties, and so-called “clean coal.”

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The end of the year often brings a flurry of “top ten” or “top twenty-five” lists, some of which are interesting–such as the “Top 25 Censored Stories of 2007-2008” compiled by Project Censored and the 10 worst corporations of the year compiled by Multinational Monitor.

Another interesting list is the Center for Media and Democracy’s “Falsies Awards” that highlight PR and media lies. Each year the watchdog organization uses the Falsies to raise awareness about the role of PR and corporate spin in the media. This year the annual awards featured three winners as well as a lifetime achievement award:

Golden Falsie: The Propaganda Pundits

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You could call it General (ret.) Misinformation — the Pentagon’s successful effort to turn retired military officers into the Bush Administration’s “message force multipliers,” mostly on broadcast and cable television. “You could see that they were messaging,” one former Defense Department official explained to New York Times journalist David Barstow, who first reported on the covert program. “You could see they were taking verbatim what the [Defense] secretary was saying … and they were saying it over and over.”

In the public relations world, putting your words into someone else’s mouth is known as the third party technique. When it’s secretly carried out with taxpayer funds to influence domestic public opinion, it’s illegal propaganda. (Three investigations into the Pentagon pundit program, by the Pentagon’s own Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and the Federal Communications Commission, are still pending.)

But wait — there’s more! Not only did the 75 Pentagon pundits dutifully parrot Administration talking points on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and warrantless wiretapping, in exchange for high-level Pentagon access, special briefings and free trips to those locations. Many of the pundits also had ties to military contractors, via side gigs as industry executives, board members, consultants and/or lobbyists. These private-enterprise pundits used their Pentagon and media access to attract new clients, benefit current clients and enrich themselves.

Silver Falsie: Disputing the Count of the Dead

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Shortly after the Pentagon pundits’ “military-industrial-media complex” helped lead the United States into war, the debate over the cost of the Iraq war began. Nearly six years later, there’s still disagreement over whether the final bill will be in the hundreds of billions or trillions of U.S. dollars. More important, of course, is the human cost. We know that more than 4,200 U.S. service members have been killed. But how many Iraqis have lost their lives?

In 2004 and 2006, public health researchers used the best available method in a war zone — surveying households in randomly distributed clusters — to answer that question. Both studies were published in the peer-reviewed British medical journal The Lancet. The more recent study estimated that, as of July 2006, there had been more than 650,000 Iraqi “excess deaths,” from violent and non-violent causes. War supporters rejected the Lancet studies, questioning the researchers’ methods and their motives.

In early 2008 — more than a year after the later study appeared — a spate of editorials heaped more scorn on the Lancet studies. These “Swift Boat editorials” (as one of the co-authors of the 2004 Lancet study called them) were based on a January 2008 National Journal article titled “Data Bomb.” The article threw several kitchen sinks’ worth of accusations at the Lancet studies and their authors: one Iraqi researcher was a Saddam Hussein stooge, the data was questionable, and the political leanings of the researchers and their funders biased their findings. None of the charges hold up under scrutiny.

When another study, authored by the Iraqi Health Ministry and World Health Organization, estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had died since March 2003, the critics of the Lancet studies declared victory. When examined carefully, however, this study’s findings are actually similar to those of the 2006 Lancet study. For example, its 151,000 figure is for Iraqi deaths from violent causes only. The study data actually predicts more than 430,000 Iraqi deaths, from both violent and non-violent causes.

While it’s not surprising that conservative commentators would seek to defend the Iraq war, mainstream media outlets have often failed to fully and accurately report on Iraqi casualties. For example, in an October 2008 action alert, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting challenged the Washington Post’s practice of reporting the fewer than 100,000 Iraqi deaths confirmed by media reports as the “maximum count.” The Post responded by changing its labeling but keeping the numbers.

Bronze Falsie: Coal Is the New Green

Increased public awareness of the threats posed by global warming, along with new evidence that significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions must be made soon, before global “tipping points” are reached, have made it difficult to build new coal-burning power plants. Since mid-2007, plans for 82 coal plants across the United States have been cancelled, abandoned or placed on hold.

The coal industry responded by ramping up its public relations and marketing efforts. Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), an industry front group formed by coal, mining, electric and railroad companies, nearly quadrupled its budget for PR, advertising and “grassroots” organizing, from 2007 to 2008. ABEC sought to influence the U.S. presidential election with a $35 million campaign touting “clean coal” in key primary and caucus states. The front group paid CNN $5 million, for advertising and co-sponsorship of at least six presidential debates. ABEC also paid people to walk around “as human billboards” outside the January 2008 Democratic debate, handing out leaflets “with questions for voters to ask the candidates.”

ABEC — since renamed the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) — also increased its lobbying efforts. It opposed the Lieberman / Warner climate change bill, seeking allies by misrepresenting itself to grassroots activists as an environmental group with no industry ties. During the first half of 2008, ABEC / ACCCE spent $4.7 million on federal lobbying, “more than any other organization … devoted exclusively to influencing climate change legislation,” reported the Center for Public Integrity.

While the Bronze Falsie goes to the coal industry and its front groups, the public relations firms behind the ABEC / ACCCE “clean coal” campaign merit mention: MGA Communications and R&R Partners. Although the Edelman firm did not work on the “clean coal” campaign, it also deserves recognition, for defending the massive expansion of a coal-burning plant in Britain while promoting its Canada office for going “carbon neutral.”

Lifetime Achievement Falsie: The Center for Consumer Fiefdom

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It seems like just yesterday, when industry lobbyist and anti-labor lawyer Rick Berman was helping tobacco giant Philip Morris (PM) defend itself against pesky public health advocates. In 1995, Berman urged PM to create a front group called the “Guest Choice Network,” to foster “a proactive, aggressive mentality” against smoking bans in restaurants and other public places. An “additional benefit,” he explained in a letter to PM, would be if the group were “externally perceived as driven by restaurant owners,” giving it “more flexibility and creativity allowed than if it is ‘owned’ by Philip Morris.”

Today, the Guest Choice Network is known as the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF). While CCF is perhaps Berman’s best-known industry front group, he certainly doesn’t limit himself to fighting public health advocates on behalf of the tobacco, alcohol and chain restaurant industries. In 2008 alone, Berman’s Center for Union Facts lobbied against labor rights legislation, claiming it would allow “union bosses” to “use coercion.” Just before the U.S. election, Berman’s Employment Policies Institute took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling ACORN “rotten,” for supposed hypocrisy while organizing and advocating for workers and low-income communities. Berman also defended the tanning industry, claiming its critics were part of a “sunscam industry.”

Indeed, no one exemplifies the spirit of the Falsie quite like Rick Berman. It takes a special — um, something — to champion the payday loan, pesticide and alcohol industries, by taking on such dangerously principled foes as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org