John Stauber interview
Executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes the investigative quarterly, PR
Watch. With Sheldon Rampton, co-author of “Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the
John Stauber: The business of propaganda really began in this century with the first WW.
The United States Wilson administration had a problem on its hands. It had to figure out a
way to overcome the public’s resistance to getting involved in Europe’s war. And so it
solved that problem by launching the Creel committee named after its chairperson Gorge
Creel, which was a US propaganda committee. And many of the people who we consider the
founding fathers of PR, men like Edward Bernays and Ivey Lee, got their start working for
the US government selling involvement in WW1 to the American public. After WW1, these
people went out looking for business as professional propagandists. Ivey Lee, especially,
went to work for the railroads and the Rockefellers. And he’s not remembered much
because he made the career blunder of going to work for the Nazis in the 1930s, being
exposed as a nazi propagandist in the US, and dying. His obituary actually talked about his
work for the Nazis. And so he’s sort of the forgotten founding father of PR. Eddie Bernays
went on to become one of the most influential people of the 2oth century and the real
founding father of propaganda.
Stephanie Welch: Bernays also wrote a book called Propaganda, and argued that the
scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in
society, a logical part of democracy. Could you comment on that?
JS: Eddie Bernays was a truly amazing figure. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, he
was a shameless self-promoter, and he was probably the most brilliant propagandist of our
time. Its true, he believed that he was committed to democratic society, but he also believed
that democracy is very fragile, and that unless a ruling elite managed the masses benevolently
through his business and science of public relations, that society would collapse into warring
anarchy and democracy could not survive. So he had no faith in democracy, his faith was in
the elite of society to manage democracy. It probably wasn’t until the late ‘30s when it
dawned on Bernays that the techniques he was masterminding and developing to manipulate
public behavior and thinking, could be used very effectively and were being used very
effectively, by the Nazis and by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels to change society into a
Fascist state. A reporter for the Hearst newspapers, Karl Von Weigan, came back from
interviewing Joseph Goebbels and reported to Bernays that Goebbels had a propaganda
library even better than Bernays’, and that Goebbels read all of Bernays books. And that may
be the first time that it dawned on Bernays that this business of propaganda really isn’t about
democracy, it’s about invisibly manipulating society on behalf of an elite.
One of the most brilliant critics of propaganda was Alex Carey, the Australian
academic, and he made the point in his book “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy,” that the
20th century has been marked by three great developments: the rise of democracy, the rise of
corporate power, and the use of corporate propaganda to protect corporate power against
democracy. And Alex Carey went on to note that in societies like ours it’s really advertising
and especially the invisible manipulation of public relations through which propaganda’s
waged. So while we think that propaganda is some dark and dirty term from the Nazi era, or
from Soviet Russia, we are in fact the most propagandized people in history.
SW: Considering our immersion in the technological system as far as media goes,
especially in the United States, to what extent do you see PR really having influence over
JS: I think PR has a steady, pervasive and overwhelming influence over our lives, both
our private lives and our public lives. Again, we all like to believe that we’re much too smart
and sophisticated to get fooled by propaganda, that in a democratic society where we have
investigative journalists, public interest groups, and competing political factions, and a well-
educated populous none of us could be fooled by propaganda. But in fact, the propaganda
industry is massive. It’s a multibillion dollar industry. By some estimates, there are more PR
practitioners in the US than there are journalists, who actually go out, investigate news and
write and deliver the news for us. The largest single grouping of PR practitioners are former
journalists who have left journalism and gone over to the dark side of propaganda. The PR
industry is really only available to big business, politicians, govt agencies and wealthy
industries. And as Sheldon Rampton and I document in our book, “Toxic Sludge is Good
for You,” the PR industry really impacts on every aspect of our personal, public and political
lives. But it attempts to do so invisibly, and unfortunately it usually succeeds.
The big PRfirms like Ketchum, BM, H&K, Edelman are usually owned by even
bigger advertising companies. But while advertising is very much in our faces, we’re hit with
thousands of propaganda messages through advertising, the whole idea of PR is invisible. If
we know it’s propaganda and we know someone is trying to manipulate or direct our
thinking or our opinions or our behavior, it’s probably not going to work. So PR works very
invisibly to put its messages in the mouths of people we trust, especially journalists,
scientists, people who are identified in public opinion surveys as being trustworthy
individuals, like C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General. These are the sorts of people
who are recruited by the chemical industry for instance, to deliver messages like pesticides
are safe, ge foods are safe, chemicals that contaminate plastics in our foods are safe. So the
PR industry completely envelops our lives.
SW: How has public relations affected journalism as a profession, and especially
investigative journalism when they say that the best PR ends up looking like news?
JS: There’s less and less investigative journalism in the US. Over the last 10 or 15 years,
we’ve seen a tremendous concentration in the business of the media. And now just a handful
of giant global conglomerates control the media that provides us with our entertainment and
news. There’s tremendous pressure on news directors to produce profits. And more and
more of what we see, hear and read that we think is news is really PR that’s being passed on
as news. The few academics who bother to take a look at this tell us that on any given day,
most of what we see, hear and read as news and news information is probably the result of
PR campaigns. Either it simply regurgitated from news release, or Radio News Releases.
Video News Releases, or it’s tremendously managed and massaged by PR. And when I go to
universities and colleges and talk to journalism students, the first question I ask is how many
of you are actually going to be journalists. Inevitably a minority of hands go up. In the
colleges and universities in the US, it is currently the norm for advertising, pr, corporate
communication, journalism, to all be taught as one. And students understand that if they’re
going to be financially successful, of crafting propaganda messages, of manipulating the
media, than there is in the world of journalism. A large crisis in our democracy I think is
attributable to the fact that journalism is in demise, there’s less and less investigative
reporting, and more and more of what we see, hear and read that’s called the news is a direct
result of PR.
SW: The PR industry boasts that at least forty percent of all the news comes straight
from, like you said, VNRs, ANRs, now is that just advertising on their part. What are the
statistics on that?
JS: Well, they’re not talking about paid advertising, that’s a completely separate category.
And that’s an interesting point because of course most of the media messages are another
type of propaganda, paid advertising. We’re just swamped with in-our-faces propaganda that
obviously affects our thinking about political candidates or about products we buy. But
when the PR industry or academics who study PR say that anywhere from forty to eighty
percent of the news and information we receive on any given day is a direct product of by-
product of PR, they’re talking about what we think is news, what we think is information
that’s been investigated and reported by journalists, but is actually completely or to a large
extent, the result of behind the scenes PR management.
A good example is the VNR. Most people have never heard of the term VNR, and
yet every day anyone who watches television news to any degree is seeing more and more
news stories that are fake news. They’re really VNRs. The estimate is that anywhere from ten
to fifteen thousand VNRs are prepared every year and distributed free to TV news directors.
They come in over the satellite, they come in through Federal Express, they’re delivered free
to the stations. And these look like very good news programs, and they’re aired as news
programs, but they’re paid for and produced by PR experts. They’re made to fool the public
into thinking they’re seeing a news report on a new drug, for instance, when what they’re
seeing is a fake news report prepared by the PR firm working for the drug company that’s
trying to hype that drug even in advance of its approval by the government. So much of
what we see on TV news are now VNRs. And the real blame here has to lie with the TV
news directors. They’re the ones who are duping the audience into thinking that the news
story they’ve just presented is objective news when it’s a VNR. Why do they do that?
Because they get this stuff for free. It’s very expensive producing good television news. And
if you can fill five or ten or fifteen minutes of an evening news program with provided
footage for free, you’re saving tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
SW: Could you tell us about some of the more hidden roles PR firms have played, in
terms of foreign policy manipulation, Argentina helping with coups in Chile or different
JS: There haven’t been a lot of books written on the PR industry very few, in fact. But
one of the best is Susan Trento’s book “The Powerhouse” and in it she points out that the
Hill and Knowlton PR firms and others have been used by the CIA as convenient fronts.
And a really interesting chapter of Watergate history that is not really reported is that the
Watergate burglars with their CIA connections were using a PR firm as their front at the
time they were arrested. The Robert R. Mullen and CO. PR firm owned by Bob Bennett was
the employer of CIA men such as Howard Hunt. And it’s funny how that never gets
mentioned these days, because Robert Bennett not only survived Watergate, but went on to
become a very influential US Senator. So its funny what gets left out of the news, not only
the fact that PR firms are used by the CIA around the world as convenient fronts, but that
sitting US senator Robert Bennett owned the PR firm that was the front for the Watergate
burglars with their CIA connections.
There’s an entire area of PR that’s devoted to managing and manipulating opinion in
countries like the US regarding regimes like Argentinean dictactorship, or the Colombian
governments being in bed with drug lords. Probably the most interesting and sophisticated
foreign policy PR campaign was that waged by the Reagan administration around the Contra
war. Because it was directed both at manipulating opinion here in the US, and in Nicaragua.
But for instance, the Argentinean generals in the 1970s who seized control of that country
and murdered and disappeared thousands of citizens, turned to Burson Marsteller to
improve its image in the world, so that its tours and business and its economy wasn’t
affected. The Colombian government in bed with the drug lords, turned to the firm of
Sawyer-Miller to convince US citizens and Congress that in fact the Colombian government
was really a struggling democracy rather than a brutal dictatorship. Guatemala, China, the
Angolan right-wing guerrillas, many dictatorial movements that don’t need to use
sophisticate PR because torture and killing works just fine in their countries, turn to PR
firms like BM and Hill and Knowlton to manage public opinion and attitudes towards them
in Western societies.
SW: I was looking in a review of your book in O’Dwyers, the PR Services report -- you
write about that in your book -- they comment that “Toxic Sludge is Good For You” is a
fairly straightforward, insider account of the doings of PR people. And your book reveals all
the underhanded tactics that PR companies use in the defense of huge corporations. How
can they be so candid [about how effective they’re actually being]?
JS: Well, they’re candid when they’re discussing among themselves, or shopping for
clients or bragging. What’s interesting is that there’s a saying. “The news media does a lousy
job of reporting on the media.” I would say the news media does an even lousier job
reporting on the business of PR and the extent to which what we perceive as news is PR.
There’s a very symbiotic relationship between news and PR, more and more of what we see
as news is the result of PR, and the problem is that there are fewer and fewer journalists who
go out and get stories, and then there are even fewer news companies who are willing to run
stories that are going to impact negatively on their major advertisers. So what we’re seeing is
a very controlled media envonment in which, as the industry of PR and the academics who
study it agree, most of the news we see is not news but is the result of PR. The journalists
who should be telling us about this propaganda industry are complicit in providing the
propaganda. We document this very well in “Toxic,” and it’s true that neither Sheldon
Rampton nor I have any background in PR, the PR experts always tell us Toxic is very
accurate. In fact, the most common comment I get is it’s even worse than you can imagine.
So we are awash in propaganda, and the news media passes it on, and journalists who should
be reporting on these propaganda campaigns are much too often complicit in delivering the
SW: Could you talk a little bit about some of the tactics that you cover in your book that
PR companies use, just to give listeners an idea of how dirty it really gets?
JS: The tactics are extremely widespread. They range from cultivating so-called third
party experts. I mentioned Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general who has a very,
very high regard among the public. And is therefore a wonderful front man for groups like
the American Council on Science and Health, a PR front group that claims to be a sound
science group working for consumers but is actually funded by the chemical industry, and
the pesticide industry, and the food industry, and is a propaganda front for them. Dr. C.
Everett Koop, and the American Council on Science and Health, with which he cooperates,
are examples of the third-party expert technique. If Monsanto tells us that its genetically-
engineered cow hormone is safe, that its genetically engineered corn is safe, that its Roundup
herbicide is safe, we may not believe them because they have billions of dollars invested in
these products, and of course they’re going to say it’s safe. But if we hear that a objective
science group like the AMCH or a respected former surgeon general like C. Everett Koop
say these things, and if we hear that from journalists, then we’re much more likely to believe
it because we give our trust over to those people. So industry has learned how to put its
words and messages in the mouths of people we’re likely to trust. When you pull back that
curtain, and you examine him and the AMSH, you see that they’re cooperating with an
industry PR campaign. But all too often, the news media fails to report that information, and
so we get information through the news media that’s put there by industry PR campaigns,
but it’s passed on as news and it effects how we think about critical issues like genetically
modified food, or pesticide-contaminated food.
Another example of how the food issue is manipulated are the food disparagement
laws, which are now on the books in thirteen states. These laws are probably the greatest
threat to free speech that we’ve seen…The extent to which industry will go in combining its
PR propaganda and its political might to manage issues is absolutely awesome. And its
usually invisible. We don’t even hear much about the food disparagement laws form the
news media. When in fact they’re a direct threat to the 1st amendment and the freedom of
the press to report food issues.
SW: You brought up an interesting point there, because it seems Oprah was having to
defend her right to free speech, and these companies essentially are saying they have a right
to free speech, to a certain extent. Could you talk a little bit about that?
JS: The interesting thing about the food disparagement issue is that they completely
contradict our fundamental American right to free speech as set forth in the first
amendment to the constitution. In the US the assumption is that information is truthful, and
the onus is on the libel party – let me restate that -- In the US, if I’m a journalist, or I’m an
activist, or I’m speaking out publicly about a product or about an individual or about a
company, the onus is on that individual or that company that manufactures the product to
prove that something I said was false and libelous. Under the American system, we want to
maximize free speech, we want a healthy debate, we don’t want important food safety
information for instance, to go unreported. Under the food disparagement laws, the onus is
on the journalist, the activist, the citizen speaking out and I can be sued, for instance, in the
state of Texas, by the beef industry if I say that MadCow disease is a real risk in the United
States. Because we’re not taking the precautionary actions we should take to guard against
these types of diseases that we already have. The beef industry can sue me, sue this program,
just like they sued Oprah, make us go to Amarillo, Texas, or wherever they file the suit,
some place that’s dependent on the beef industry, make us go out and hire experts,
attorneys, and prove in a court of law that our statements are accurate and based on sound
science. I may have to spend--you may have to spend millions of dollars simply defending
our right to free speech. And so these laws have a very chilling effect on the news media.
And the message it sends the news media is just stay away from these controversial food
safety issues, because we don’t want to have to go to Amarillo, Texas, and literally spend
millions of dollars winning a lawsuit. We would rather simply avoid covering these
And this is a whole area of PR management that’s called SLAPP suits. And these are
“strategic lawsuits against public participation.” These are lawsuits that are designed to shut
up journalists and shut up activists and keep issues out of the media. You know a lot of
reports on propaganda focus on how information is put in the media. But the most
successful propaganda is done by keeping information out of the media in the first place.
There’s the old saying, “ignorance is bliss” and the extent to which information can be
simply censored is the extent to which controversial issues are successfully managed by
corporations and governments.
SW: I’d like to talk about some of the terms that you hear around PR industry, like “crisis
management” risk assessment, risk analysis, things like that. It seems like multinationals are
suffering maybe a crisis of legitimacy. And their reputations are on the line, and so PR
companies then come in during a crisis say the Exxon oil spill, situations like that where a
company has to defend itself to the public in the face of attacks by activists and other
people. You talked a little bit before about how activists are targeted by PR companies.
Could you talk more about that and the kinds of tactics that PR companies will use to
undermine activists efforts?
JS: Certainly. A big part of the PR industry is devoted to what’s called issue
management, or crisis management. And this is the idea that large companies that are
involved in polluting the environment for instance like Exxon, or manufacturing
controversial or potentially dangerous products are in a constant state of crisis. The chemical
industry, the pesticide industry, and what they need to do is manage issues to keep the public
in the dark and make sure that activists, individuals, organizations social reformers that are
trying to rectify problems caused by capitalism, problems caused by corporations, are not
listened to, or are marginalized. So there are certain companies like the Mongoven, Biscoe
and Duchin firm (MBD) that specialize in spying on activists organizations, gathering
intelligence, maintaining dossiers on activist groups, controversial issues, leaders in the
environmental movement, the animal rights movement, the consumer movement. And
MBD then advises major corporations – and it claims that 25 percent of the hundred largest
corporations in the world are its clients -- on how to handle controversies where individual
citizens or activists are raising concerns that might threaten the bottom line of a company.
God forbid a company might have to admit a mistake and take a dangerous product off the
market, or change its way of manufacturing a product to make it more safe or humane. So
crisis management begins with companies like MBD gathering intelligence how to defeat
activists. And they have techniques such as divide and conquer techniques that they use to
find allies that can partner with corporations.
If the public perceives that Exxon didn’t really do much damage in polluting with the
spill of the Exxon Valdez, or that pesticides really aren’t much of a health problem, then
that’s the most successful type of issue management, or reputation management, or crisis
management campaign you can launch. So the first job in issue management is perception
management, and trying to keep information out of the media, and convincing the public
that toxic sludge is good for you, or pesticides are safe, or conversely maybe organic food is
dangerous. These are all real PR campaigns that are all part of the reputation and issue
management side of PR.
SW: I was reading in PR Watch that at the annual convention of the Public Relations
Society of America -- it’s amazing reading the different titles of these workshops -- they’re
very candid about what their goals are in PR. In one talk, I think it was in 1996, a talk
sponsored by Monsanto, social scientist Frances Fukuyama contended that only societies
with a high degree of social trust – and this is his quote – “will be able to create the flexible,
large-scale business organizations that are needed to compete in the new global economy.”
Could you comment on that?
JS: Sure, I’m not sure that Fukuyama was actually at that conference. I think we may
have quoted him as part of our analysis of that conference. But just to speak to the point.
Again, reputation management and perception management is critical to global capitalism
because we now have a situation where a relatively small number of global companies
operate worldwide are consolidating their markets. And it’s essential that these global
companies are able to operate smoothly all around the world. It’s essential that they be
trusted. And because information travels rapidly now, around the world, if a company like
Shell is linked to a brutal military regime in Nigeria, or a company like Monsanto is seen as
trying to force genetically modified foods down the throat of people in Europe and Britain,
like they already have here in the US, that’s a real problem. And so the PR industry works
globally to develop a global reputation for its clients.
That’s one reason why we see so much emphasis being put on the idea of
partnerships. Corporations have learned how to find big non-profit orgs to help them
improve their image. A good example is the McDonald’s corporation. McDonald's is very
powerful global corporation. A few years ago they sued a couple of activists in Britain for
simply distributing generally true and accurate information about how harmful their practices
are to human health and the environment. They couldn’t have done that here in the US
because of our first amendment. But the food disparagement law that I mentioned earlier is
going a long way to make these sorts of lawsuits possible and common in the US. Now
McDonald’s has environmental partner: the Environmental Defense Fund. They formed a
partnership with McDonald’s some years ago when McDonald’s finally agreed to stop using
it’s styrofoam hamburger package. The environmental defense fund praised McDonald’s and
McDonald’s reputation suddenly went up and people began to see McDonald’s as an
environmentally responsible firm. This is an example of greenwashing. The environmental
Defense Fund then told its supporters that it had done something very significant by making
McDonald’s a more environmentally responsible company. Well, where was the
Environmental Defense Fund criticizing it’s environmental partner McDonald’s when the
firm attempted to destroy the lives and suppress the truth in their libel lawsuit against these
activists in Britain? It was nowhere to be seen. A lot of what’s happening with big polluting
companies is they’re contributing money to big environmental groups like the Audubon
Society, and PR executives like Leslie Dach who’s with the Edelman firm are showing up on
the boards of groups like Audubon and they’re using firms like MBD, the PR spy firm I
mentioned earlier, to try to identify willing and environmental partners. This is all part of a
campaign to be perceived of as environmentally and socially responsible when in fact these
big global firms are just continuing to do what they do, which is pollute. And in countries
that don’t have the sorts of political and social rights that we have in western and democratic
societies operate sweatshops and support really repressive regimes.
SW: Considering the huge amount of resources that PR firms and these transnationals
have on hand to undermine the work of activists’ campaigns, to use corporate to put their
spin on the news, how can they be challenged?
JS: I think that’s a problem, and a question that everyone has to ask themselves every
day. What we point out in Toxic, is that the corporations are winning. They are turning aside
activists’ challenges, they’re having their day. And in large part it’s because of what I
mentioned earlier. Much of what we get through the news media is in fact pr, the PR
industry is winning the propaganda battle, if you will. And the first step is for journalists to
start being journalists again, and reporting on how corporations manage and manipulate
public opinions, public policy, and the news media. But it’s up to individual citizens to
understand the power and extent of propaganda. And the way to begin doing that is to really
educate ourselves. And I think the most hopeful sign, frankly, is that over the past twenty
years, there’s been a tremendous rise in alternative media. The community radio stations,
many of the weeklies, this program, are an example. And now we see how alternative media,
which is an independent voice to the commercial control of the media, are really under
attack. And I think all of us owe it to ourselves to do everything we can to help make sure
that independent media, media that’s not simply passing on corporate commercial spin
becomes more and more powerful. We have to begin by challenging the propaganda that’s
being passed on by commercial journalism.
SW: Well thanks John Stauber for being with us on Making Contact. If people want to get
in touch with you, how can they do that?
JS: They can go to our website, which is www.prwatch.org, or they can call
608-233-3346 get a free issue of PR watch.