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.”


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


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


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


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.

Exposing Front Groups and Shady Marketing Strategies


The Center for Media and Democracy and Consumer Reports Webwatch have launched a new website called “Full Frontal Scrutiny” that is aimed exposing “front groups.”

Front groups have been a common way for corporations and other interested parties to obscure their agenda while appearing as an unbiased source. The Center for Media and Democracy describes a front group as:

“..an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. The front group is perhaps the most easily recognized use of the third party technique. For example, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Center_for_Consumer_Freedom) claims that its mission is to defend the rights of consumers to choose to eat, drink and smoke as they please. In reality, CCF is a front group for the tobacco, restaurant and alcoholic beverage industries, which provide all or most of its funding.”

The project launched with an investigation into front groups and Wikipedia reporting on the various ways in which public relations firms and corporations seek to manipulate Wikipedia entries in order to promote their clients and products.

The front page of the website also features a brief news item about Meijer and its use of front groups in northern Michigan:

“In Acme Township, Michigan, the Meijer retail giant “secretly funded a plan to orchestrate last February’s recall of Acme Township’s elected officials, a potential violation of state campaign finance laws,” reports Brian McGillivary. “Meijer paid a public relations firm at least $30,000 in a failed effort to remove Acme’s board after years of zoning disputes over Meijer’s plans to build a store along M-72 in Grand Traverse County. Meijer’s public relations firm crafted recall language, devised election strategy, wrote campaign literature, and used local residents as figureheads in the recall.” The PR firm, Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson Inc. of Grand Rapids, directed the campaign using front groups including Acme Taxpayers for Responsible Government and the Acme Recall Committee. “It gives me a chill, how much money they can spend to ruin other people,” said Acme Clerk Dorothy Dunville, one of the public officials targeted by the company’s recall campaign. T. Michael Jackson, a retired public relations professional, has filed a complaint with the Public Relations Society of America, charging that Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson violated the Society’s code of ethics.”

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy

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In today’s media driven world, so much of the information and images we are exposed to comes from the Public Relations (PR) industry. PR firms are generally thought of when it comes to advertising and commercial campaigns, but they have been involved in electoral politics, foreign policy campaigns, and increasingly are the ones that create the news. In fact, the PR industry in this country was really developed by the Wilson administration to convince the American public of this country’s need to enter WWI. The group that worked on that campaign was the Creel Commission, also known as the Committee on Public Information. Several members of that commission, such as Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, went on to become some of the most influential propagandists in the 20th Century.

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy is a collection of essays on the contemporary role of the public relations industry that follows the legacy of the Creel Commission. The co-editors of the book, William Dinan and David Miller also wrote the first essay, which lays the foundation of how the PR industry is an assault on democracy. They identify 6 main charges against the PR industry:

1) It is overwhelmingly carried out for vested powerful interests, mainly corporations.

2) It is not open and transparent about its means or even about its clients and the interests it is working for.

3) It characteristically involves deception and manipulation.

4) It does not engage in democratic debate, but rather seeks to subvert it in the interests of its clients.

5) Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and other ‘ethical’ activities are all subordinated to corporate strategy.

6) PR has played a crucial role at the cutting edge of corporate power in the neoliberal revolution.

These six charges of investigated in the remaining essays, which look at PR in the US and England. There are a variety of PR applications that are addressed in this book: the role of Washington PR, farming salmon, Exxon, biotech, arms trade, US Democracy programs abroad, the London Stock Exchange, and Coca Cola. I will touch on just a few of these issues.

The essay on the biotech industry’s use of PR is written by Jonathan Matthews, the co-founder of GM Watch and Lobby Watch. This essay deals primarily with what the biotech industry did at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a way to undermine the message and effort of international environmental activists, the biotech industry staged a protest by what we thought to be poor, third world farmers. These “farmers” were claiming that people like Vandana Shiva were responsible for the starvation of millions of people because they opposed GM foods. What Matthews discovered was quite fascinating and very instructive for those who work on international justice and environmental issues. Matthews found out that Monsanto and groups like Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) are the ones who staged the protest against international activists. CEI even created an independent webpage called Counterprotest.net which has now morphed into Bureaucrash, a website designed for free-market activists. The founders of this website also created the NGO known as the Sustainable Development Network which also promotes the free market and downplays issues like global warming. What Matthews and others found out about these protestors is that they were paid to protest, and that most of them were there because of trade issues. Many of the protestors wore T-shirts that said things like “Stop Global Whining” or “Biotechnology for Africa.” When approached by people from the summit they soon discovered that the protestors were told to be there and that most of them did not speak English, even though all the t-shirts they were wearing were in English. To make matters worse, one journalist discovered that these “protestors” were brought to the demonstration on a bus that was paid for by the PR company Burson-Marstellar, who was hired by Monsanto. In fact, Monsanto was behind the whole effort to discredit international activists, all for the purpose of promoting GM foods globally. The result of this orchestrated campaign made little impact on the Summit, but the protestors received substantial coverage in most of the US media, thus legitimizing Monsanto’s propaganda message.

The chapter by Laura Miller is quite instructive, especially since the US is in the midst of another Presidential Election. Her essay is entitled “Powers Behind the Throne: Washington’s Top Political Strategists.” Miller works at the Center for Media and Democracy. She begins her piece by identifying four large corporate and political campaign strategists: The DCI Group, Feather Larson Synhorst-DCI, FYI Messaging, and TSE Enterprises. According to Miller, each of these groups are linked by a single person, Thomas Synhorst, who happens to be a founding member of each group. Synhorst used to work for the big tobacco company R.J. Reynolds and several electoral campaigns, so he knows how to manipulate the system. These groups that Miller has identified develop campaigns and strategies for their clients to gain access to and lobby members of Congress.

In 2000, when Microsoft was facing anti-trust lawsuits, they hired DCI. DCI helped the company to influence public opinion and to effectively lobby Congress by creating new trade groups such as the Association for Competitive Technology and Americans for Technology Leadership. These groups used what was believed to be a fake letter writing campaign to newspapers across the country to present what appeared to be “a surging grassroots movement behind Microsoft.”

Another campaign these groups orchestrated was the creation of the group Progress for America. Created in 2001 and with close ties to the Republican Party, PFA led campaigns in support of tax cuts, conservative judicial appointments and energy legislation. When the Federal Election Commission decided to postpone its decision on regulating so-called 527 Groups, PFA created a spin off 527 Group called Progress for America Voter Fund. This group went on to raise millions of dollars for the Re-elect Bush/Cheney campaign. The Democrats have created their own 527 Groups, most notably the Democratic Joint Victory Campaign 2004, which brought in $65.5 million. Many of the 527 Groups that the Democrats created were used to target the Dean campaign. What Miller demonstrates is that these types of groups have tremendous power when it comes to shaping Washington politics. This type of political manipulation may not fit into the traditional PR model, but they are another manifestation of how PR efforts can undermine democracy.

This collection of essays not only provides excellent case studies in contemporary corporate PR campaigns it provides readers with skills to, not only ask critical questions about the role of PR firms, but to identify potential tactics and strategies that are anti-democratic. Reading Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy can arm journalists and activists with necessary tools to shine the light on deceptive corporate practices and create more accountability.

William Dinan and David Miller, eds., Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, (Pluto Press, 2007).

Pro-War Group begins New Ad Campaign across the Country

The pro-war group Freedom’s Watch–who ran ads in West Michigan on WOOD TV 8 over the summer supporting the ongoing occupation of Iraq–has a new set of ads “thanking” the troops. The ads, which are not airing in the West Michigan market, direct people to the Freedom’s Watch website where they can then send letters opposing a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

freedom's watch logo

The group Freedom’s Watch began a new ad campaign on December 6 with ads thanking U.S. troops during this holiday season. Freedom’s Watch ran its first ad campaign in late summer just before General Petraeus presented his report on how “effective” the U.S. surge was in Iraq. The first campaign by Freedom’s Watch did include spending in the West Michigan TV market, running a total of $36,625.00 worth of ads on WOOD TV 8 during a two-week period.

The current ad campaign is focused on the theme of “thanking the U.S. troops.” There are two TV/video ads and three print ads that Freedom’s Watch has created. According to their website, the “television ads will air across the nation December 6th-21st.” None of the West Michigan TV stations are running these ads, although each of the three Grand Rapids-based stations did run ads thanking U.S. troops in 2003 during the first months of the war in Iraq.

The TV ads are designed to get viewers to identify U.S. troops as “heroes” and “fighting for our freedom.” One of the ads begins with several individuals saying “thank you” and the narrator then saying “people are gathering all across the country to support our troops who are away from their families this holiday season.” The ad then cuts to a U.S. military veteran who says, “We’re proud of you.” The narrator continues by saying, “these men and women are heroes and deserve our undying gratitude.” Next we see an Iraq war veteran who says, “It was an honor to serve with you. God bless you all.”

The second TV spot begins with a series of holiday greetings. After the initial greetings there are statements such as, “You are in our hearts and prayers” and “We’re very proud of you.” In this ad we see a couple standing in front of the Washington monument saying thanking you for “standing up for our freedom.” In another scene there are a group of motorcycle riders sitting in front of the Jefferson Memorial and one of them says, “thank you for your service.” There is also a scene with kids and a dog who yell thank you “for protecting us” and a group of women in front of the Golden Gate bridge saying “You’re all heroes.” Finally, there is a man standing in front of the New York skyline and he says thank you “for keeping us safe.” Both of these ads have very emotionally driven music and American flags in almost every scene. These are clearly ads designed to continue the idea that the U.S. military is indeed protecting the American people and engaged in the noblest of causes.

So far these are airing on CNN and Fox News and the print ads have been in the New York Times and several smaller dailies across the country. The NBC network has refused to run these ads primarily because Freedom’s Watch website appears at the end of the ads. Alan Wurtzel of NBC said:

“We have a policy that prohibits acceptance of advertising that deals with issues of public controversy. This particular ad, in and of itself, is fine. It thanks the troops for their action overseas. We asked them to eliminate a URL address where a person is asked to contact elected officials and told not to cut and run on the war on terror.”

Because of NBC’s refusal to run these ads, Freedom’s Watch is encouraging their supporters to write letters to the network in the hope that it will pressure them to run the ads.

Amway/Alticor Allegedly Edit Wikipedia to Remove Criticism

Last week, the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization that monitors and challenges the public relations industry, launched a new project aimed at exposing how corporations and PR firms edit Wikipedia to remove critical information. In the first week of the project, researchers working on the project found that Grand Rapids area corporation Amway/Alticor edited Amway’s wikipedia page to remove information critical of Amway’s attempt to silence criticism of the company on the Internet. According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch page on Alticor, on July 26, 2005 someone using a computer at an Internet address tracing back to Amway/Quixtar “removed references to their company’s practice of “Google bombing,” which is an attempt to drown out sites reporting deceptive practices and negative opinions.”

Since the start of the project, there have been a series of edits uncovered including Chevron deleting an article from Wikipedia on “biodiesel,” military contractor Raytheon removing information about their spying on competitors, electronic voting machine company Diebold removing information critical of their voting machines, and the PR firm Hill & Knowlton removing information critical of their clients.

National TV Campaign in Favor of the US Occupation comes to Grand Rapids

A new public relations campaign organized to support the ongoing occupation of Iraq has been described as a “White House front group” by the Center for Media an Democracy. Despite this, the ads are running in West Michigan with 74 paid spots airing on WOOD TV 8 from late August through the first two weeks of September.

freedom's watch logo

A national group, Freedom’s Watch, began running ads in 40-60 TV markets across the country in late August, ads that call for a “US Victory in Iraq.” Freedom’s Watch is viewed by some as a White House front group that is made up “of prominent conservatives with a pro-Israel agenda masquerading as a grassroots movement.” The group, which was formed just weeks ago, is led by former White House spokesperson Ari Fleisher. Fleisher was an integral part of the White House’s Iraq War propaganda campaign to convince the US public that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Fleisher resigned in May of 2003, just weeks after the so-called “Mission Accomplished” speech that Bush delivered.

The ad campaign is designed to influence public opinion and legislators to support President Bush’s request for additional funding after the report from General Patraeus is delivered in mid-September. The political file at WOOD TV 8 revealed that the Freedom Watch ads began running in West Michigan in late August and will run through the first two weeks of September, a total of 74 paid spots for a total of $36,625.00. The ads are running during the airing of “The Today Show” and the 5:30 and 6:00pm newscasts. According to the channel 8 public file, the company buying the ad time is Jamestown Associates who describes itself as a “full-service Republican political consulting firm specializing in direct mail, television and radio production, and general strategic consulting.” The Center for Media & Democracy says that Jamestown Associates has represented “such groups as Americans for Job Security, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The television ads feature Iraq War Veterans and family members of US soldiers who have died in Iraq. The ads emphasize that the only acceptable solution is a “US Victory in Iraq,” arguing that “now is not the time to cut and run” and that a “US troop withdrawal would tell the terrorists that they can do what they want.” Several of the video ads reference the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, one with a still image of the second plane crashing into the twin towers in New York. The ads are consistent with recent White House statements such as an August 28 speech to the American Legion by President Bush where he said:

“For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country. Imagine an Iraq where al Qaeda has established sanctuaries to safely plot future attacks on targets all over the world, including America. We’ve seen what these enemies will do when American forces are actively engaged in Iraq. And we can envision what they would do if we — if they were emboldened by American forces in retreat.”

In a recent e-mail by the group Americans Against Escalation in Iraq they state that the Freedom’s Watch ads are running in the West Michigan market because of the pressure that their campaign has put on Grand Rapids area Representative Vern Ehlers. In the email Americans Against Escalation in Iraq wrote:

“Rep. Ehlers has been feeling the heat from his constituents and the Iraq Summer campaign for his support for Bush’s failed war policy. Now these ads are squeezing Rep. Ehlers from the right. With these new ads, Rep. Ehlers is under fire from both sides.”

It is difficult to determine if these ads are directed at Ehlers, his constituents or both. We do know that the group is spending $15 million over the next few weeks in order to impact the next vote on whether or not to give the Bush Administration the additional funding it is asking for with the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Century of Media, A Century of War

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Robin Andersen, a communications scholar and professor has provided us with a very important book on the US media’s relationship to war over the past century. The author demonstrates that there has been a consistent relationship between US government propaganda and the news media’s reporting on US foreign wars since WWI.

Beginning with the US government’s efforts to get the American public to support the US entry into WWI, President Wilson created the Creel Commission. The Creel Commission was designed to manufacture the public’s consent to go to war against Germany. Photos were fabricated to show how blood thirty German soldiers were and used on posters, billboards all across the country. The leader of the commission, George Creel had “75,000 speakers, operating in 5,200 communities making over 750,000 speeches to an estimated audience of 400 million,” according to Andersen. Another tactic was the creation of the “Four-Minute Men.” The Four-Minute Men would give talks in movie houses all across the country, which eventually led to Hollywood’s participation in the war effort. D.W. Griffith is best known for his White Supremacist film Birth of a Nation, but he also directed Hearts of the World, a film set in occupied France where villagers were victimized by German troops.

Building on the successes on WWI, the US government continued to create media to support it’s foreign policy in what Andersen calls “the Grand Narrative.” This broad theme continues to the present with the notion that what the US forces do is “good” and the enemy “bad.” Andersen notes that the US media continued along the same path with full cooperation with military planners in presenting nothing but noble actions abroad.

The book continues with Korea and Vietnam. While it is popular belief that the US media was more antagonistic to US military actions in Vietnam, Andersen demonstrates that this existed with some reporters, but most stayed within the “Grand Narrative.” It was only years into the war that more and more reporters began to question the “official” position and provide the US public with the evidence of the human cost of the war. Even Walter Cronkite, upon visiting Vietnam in 1968, had to question the logic of US actions. He stated this on air when he said that “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as honorable people.”

Part II of the book deals with the US wars in Central America in the 1980s. One quickly discovers that Andersen herself did some investigative reports from war-torn El Salvador with teams of TV journalists she calls budget and bang bang crews – TV crews that had limited budgets and tended to report on the latest conflict with little context or analysis.

It was during the Reagan years in the 1980s that another government PR department was created, the Office of Public Diplomacy. This department played a large role in crafting the public image of the US backed terrorist forces in Nicaragua, the Contras. A significant portion of the book is spent on the Central American wars, which I think is important for two reasons. First, many of the current Bush administration officials were deeply involved in these wars — men like Otto Reich, John Negroponte, Elliot Abrams, Colin Powell, Robert Gates. The other aspect of examining the 1980s is that it produced very clear examples of government propaganda and US news media complicity. Andersen has a whole chapter on the Iran/Contra scandal to illustrate this point. She notes that this fraudulent government campaign that included deception, arms deals and violations of international law, came down to the prosecution and eventually canonization of Col. Oliver North. That the media glossed over the role of those mentioned earlier, along with Reagan and Bush Sr. is a testament to the level of what Noam Chomsky calls the “internalization of the values of the system” by US reporters.

The last part of the book deals with both the 1991 and present US wars in Iraq, a section of the book that would be more familiar to readers. However, Andersen does include information that might be unknown to many readers, specifcally with regard to what she refers to as the “military-entertainment-complex.” The author notes that there is this symbiotic relationship between digital animation specialists, the US military, and weapons manufacturers. This is an area that has received little attention, but one where Andersen says the public needs to pay attention to. One such consortium in this military-entertainment-complex is STRICOM, a Florida-based research team that is developing “twenty-first century war fighter’s preparation for real world contingencies.” A look at their website is quite revealing – www.stricom.army.mil.

Overall the book provides readers with a good framework of the US media’s historical relationship when reporting on US wars and it’s role in supporting military policy. I highly recommend Robin Andersen’s book as it can give us an important analysis of how current US military actions are presented by both the government and corporate owned media in the US.

Robin Andersen, A Century of Media, a Century of War, (Peter Lang Publishing, 2006)

National Industry Front Groups and Lobbying Firms Campaigning for Michigan Cable Legislation

According to new research by Media Mouse, AT&T is using both a public relations firm with ties to other major media corporations and the conservative movement and an industry front group as part of its effort to secure passage of favorable cable legislation in Michigan.

National industry front groups and lobbying firms connected to AT&T are campaigning for the passage of HB 6456 in Michigan. The bill would adjust the way that cable franchises are awarded in the state in light of efforts by AT&T and other telecommunications companies to compete with cable providers. Franchises are currently negotiated on a per municipality basis while the bill would setup a statewide franchising system, under which any existing franchises could be cut immediately. There is a potential that local communities could lose as much as $47 to $57 million in revenue from changes in the franchising process. While AT&T has already come out in the press in support of the bill when it stated that it would not invest money or create jobs in Michigan if HB 6456 does not pass, it is also making use of national lobbying firms and industry front groups to advocate for the passage of the bill in a more subtle manner in which AT&T appears at first glance not to be backing the effort.

AT&T is working with the national lobbying firm Creative Response Concepts, an Alexandria, Virginia based firm that has a history of working with large corporations, industry front groups, and conservative causes. Among the company’s clients are a number of media corporations including AT&T, Viacom, PAX Television, the Walt Disney Company, Simon & Schuster, Universal Studios, TIME Warner, and Telecel International as well as large industry groups such as the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturing Association. In addition, the company has also worked with far right organizations including the Federalist Society and the Media Research Center. However, the company is probably most know for supporting the Republican Party and the conservative movement in general through its work representing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group in the 2004 presidential campaign. That group used a variety of media appearances and a book, published by another Creative Response Concepts client, Regenry Publishing, to criticize Senator John Kerry’s military service in Vietnam.

Creative Response Concepts sent out an email this week to media outlets across the state urging people media outlets to interview former Assistant United States Secretary of Commerce Larry Irving about the “many benefits” of the legislation. The email claims that the bill will save consumers money and bring new jobs to the state. However, while the email mentions that Irving also is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, it fails to explain that the Internet Innovation Alliance is a front group for the telecommunications industry. The Internet Innovation Alliance was identified by the organization Common Cause as one of the major “astroturf” and telecommunications front groups campaigning to eliminate net neutrality in a study conducted earlier this year. While the Alliance calls itself an “association of nonprofit groups, business associations, consumer advocates, think tanks, corporations and technology leaders,” it has no consumer groups and instead counts AT&T as one of its members along with the Information Technology Association of America. The Internet Innovation Alliance was formed by SBC in 2004 as a front group to advance policy favorable to the telecommunications company, whom AT&T acquired in a merger with SBC. The industry front group FreedomWorks has also been active in the campaign for HB 6456.

While the involvement of these entities does not fundamentally change the debate over the bill, it does show that the telecommunications companies are putting up an intense effort to create public support for the bill in addition to lobbying for it heavily in the Michigan Senate.

Commentary: You're not really watching the news: VNRs and the future of media

Media Mouse has posted Jeff Smith’s latest column for Recoil magazine in the commentary section of the site. In it, Smith dicusses video news releases (VNRs) and their use by media corporations:

So I’m watching the news — go figure — and this story comes on about how former President Clinton is helping to reduce childhood obesity. He’s standing in a school in Harlem and is joined by the CEO of Pepsico to announce that certain companies are going to put limits on what products they provide for school vending machines. The story says that “Kraft, Mars, Dannon, Campbells and Pepsi have all signed on.” While the reporter says this there are tight camera shots of products bearing of these brand names. Question: did the reporter ask the camera person to video tape products laid out nicely? These products weren’t at the press conference with Bill Clinton and his corporate buddies, so when did they get that footage? Maybe they did a little table display in the staff break room back at the TV station…hmmmm. What happened most likely, was the story included part of what the industry calls a VNR…a video news release.

Read “You’re not really watching the news: VNRs and the future of media”

Sheldon Rampton Explores Public Relations and the War in Iraq

Last night at the Wealthy Theatre, Sheldon Rampton spoke on the public relations industry and the government’s use of public relations techniques a means of building support for the Iraq War and downplaying its failures.

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.