But, Can We Be Adequately Informed?
by Mac Lawrence

November 14, 1999 - Note from the Editor: This article should be read in conjonction with What the People Want, also written by Mac Lawrence.

Alan Kay states the case (see What the People Want) that a well-informed citizenry will make the right decisions. But how well informed are we? What are our sources of information? How do we know what we hear, read, and see is not influenced, perhaps even fabricated, by someone who is biased?

An article in The Sun, titled "War on Truth: The Secret Battle for the American Mind," paints an ominous picture of where much of our information comes from. The article begins with a quote from Australian academic Alex Carey: "The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

The remainder of the article is an interview with John Stauber, editor of the journal PR Watch and author of Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry. Stauber claims that virtually everything we read, see, and hear on the issues we care about is managed by corporate spin artists. "In order to confuse the public and manipulate opinion and policy to their advantage," Stauber says, "corporations spend billions of dollars a year, hiring public relations firms to cultivate the press, discredit their critics, spy on and co-opt citizens' groups, and use polls to find out what images and messages will resonate with target audiences."

Public Relations (PR) firms, Stauber says, are numerous, secretive, influential, politically connected, and have virtually limitless budgets. He reports that one, Burson-Marsteller, has a PR staff of 2100 in more than 30 countries, and claims a quarter of a billion dollars in net fees from its clients, which include not only many Fortune 500 companies, but governments as well. Stauber quotes Burson-Marsteller as saying: "The role of communications is to manage perceptions which motivate behaviors that create business results."

How do PR firms do it? Half of what we read about corporations, Stauber notes, actually originates from a PR firm. "If you're a lazy journalist, editor, or news director, it's easy to simply regurgitate the dozens of press releases and stories that come in every day for free from the PR people, many of them former reporters who cultivate relationships with the press, and control the press' access to key corporate people."

Though admitting that much of what public relations people do is helpful, Stauber worries that "public relations has become a huge, powerful, hidden medium available only to wealthy individuals, big corporations, governments, and government agencies because of its high cost. And the purpose of these campaigns is not to facilitate democracy or promote social good, but to increase power and profitability for the clients paying the bills."

In the interview conducted by Derrick Jensen, an editor with The Sun, Stauber explains how PR firms use scientists to make their messages believable, how they use polls to market products like cigarettes and come up with product names the public doesn't find offensive (like substituting the name "bovine somatotropin" for the scary term "bovine growth hormone"), and how they cooperate with reporters on the basis of whether the reporter's stories are favorable or unfavorable to their clients. Stauber describes divide-and-conquer strategies for defeating social-change movements, such as hiring and paying large fees to "so-called activists" to work against the public interest, and the use of phony research for such objectives as proving that cigarette smoking doesn't cause cancer. He points to industry-funded groups with misleading names like the Global Climate Coalition which, he says, claims global warming is a myth; the Workplace Health & Safety Council which opposes regulations aimed at strengthening worker safeguards; and the National Wetlands Coalition composed mainly of oil drillers, developers, and natural gas companies. "Managing the outrage is more important than managing the hazard" is the single most important rule of public relations, Stauber says.

Stauber includes other quotes, such as this one from Edward Bernays, the man who is reported to have coined the term public relations: "If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it." Bernays called this process the "engineering of consent," describing its practitioners as "an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."

Of course, not every bit of information we get comes from those who are trying to "control and regiment the masses." But it makes sense that everything we read, hear, or see has some bias to it, however slight, because it is originated or processed by some individual or some group. So, what to conclude from Stauber's message? Continue to take things with a grain of salt, look behind the scenes, and read the morning newspaper with care.


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Published November 14, 1999
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