John Stauber interview

Executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes the investigative quarte...
waged. So while we think that propaganda is some dark and dirty term from the Nazi era, or
from Soviet Russia, we are in f...
communication, journalism, to all be taught as one. And students understand that if they’re
going to be financially succes...
the employer of CIA men such as Howard Hunt. And it’s funny how that never gets
mentioned these days, because Robert Benne...
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 ...
these types of diseases that we already have. The beef industry can sue me, sue this program,
just like they sued Oprah, m...
If the public perceives that Exxon didn’t really do much damage in polluting with the
spill of the Exxon Valdez, or that p...
companies is they’re contributing money to big environmental groups like the Audubon
Society, and PR executives like Lesli...
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  1. 1. 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 PR Industry.” 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
  2. 2. 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 public life? 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
  3. 3. 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 places. 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
  4. 4. 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 propaganda.
  5. 5. 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
  6. 6. 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 controversial issues. 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.
  7. 7. 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
  8. 8. 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, or they can call 608-233-3346 get a free issue of PR watch.