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Publisher WeeklyRampton and Stauber's impassioned call for skepticism goes beyond rhetoric-they offer practical guidelines for separating propaganda from useful information.
— (December 4, 2000)
We count on the experts. We count on them to tell us who to vote for, what to eat, how to raise our children. We watch them on TV, listen to them on the radio, read their opinions in magazine and newspaper articles and letters to the editor. We trust them to tell us what to think, because there’s ...
We count on the experts. We count on them to tell us who to vote for, what to eat, how to raise our children. We watch them on TV, listen to them on the radio, read their opinions in magazine and newspaper articles and letters to the editor. We trust them to tell us what to think, because there’s too much information out there and not enough hours in a day to sort it all out.
We should stop trusting them right this second.
In their new book Trust Us, We’re Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, authors of Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, offer a chilling exposé on the manufacturing of "independent experts."
Public relations firms and corporations know well how to exploit your trust to get you to buy what they have to sell: Let you hear it from a neutral third party, like a professor or a pediatrician or a soccer mom or a watchdog group. The problem is, these third parties are usually anything but neutral. They have been handpicked, cultivated, and meticulously packaged in order to make you believe what they have to say—preferably in an "objective" format like a news show or a letter to the editor. And in some cases, they have been paid handsomely for their "opinions."
You think that nonprofit organizations just give away their stamps of approval on products? Bristol-Myers Squibb paid $600,000 to the American Heart Association for the right to display AHA’s name and logo in ads for its cholesterol-lowering drug Pravachol. SmithKline Beecham paid the American Cancer Society $1 million for the right to use its logo in ads for Beecham’s Nicoderm CQ and Nicorette anti-smoking ads.
You think that a study out of a prestigious university is completely unbiased? In 1997, Georgetown University’s Credit Research Center issued a study which concluded that many debtors are using bankruptcy as an excuse to wriggle out of their obligations to creditors. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen cited the study in a Washington Times column and advocated for changes in federal law to make it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy relief. What Bentsen failed to mention was that the Credit Research Center is funded in its entirety by credit card companies, banks, retailers, and others in the credit industry; that the study itself was produced with a $100,000 grant from VISA USA, Inc. and MasterCard International; and that Bentsen himself had been hired to work as a credit-industry lobbyist.
You think that all grassroots organizations are truly grassroots? In 1993, a group called Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP) appeared, calling itself "the largest women’s environmental group in Australia, with thousands of supporters across the country." Their cause: A campaign against plastic milk bottles. It turned out that the group’s spokesperson, Alana Maloney, was in truth a woman named Janet Rundle, the business partner of a man who did P.R. for the Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers—the makers of paper milk cartons.
You think that if a scientist says so, it must be true? In the early 1990s, tobacco companies secretly paid thirteen scientists a total of $156,000 to write a few letters to influential medical journals. One biostatistician received $10,000 for writing a single, eight-paragraph letter that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A cancer researcher received $20,137 for writing four letters and an opinion piece to the Lancet, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and The Wall Street Journal.
Rampton and Sta...
"If you've ever wanted to see a TV spin doctor hog-tied and dragged through the streets, Rampton and Stauber do the next best thing. This book is modern muckraking of the best variety, skewering hype and showing us how to separate real experts from snake oil salesmen and hired corporate know-it-alls." —Jim Hightower
"Trust Us, We’re Experts is a brilliant piece of investigative journalism and a powerful vaccine against the stupefying effects of the corporate PR machine. Spread it around!" —Barbara Ehrenreich
"Rampton and Stauber have once again exposed the ugly underbelly of corporate America's psychological war on our citizens. Trust Us, We're Experts! shows how giant corporations employ sophisticated psychiatric techniques, unscrupulous public figures, paid biostitutes, junk science, tainted studies and clever PR mercenaries in a relentless effort to market products that routinely kill, maim, deform and poison consumers and our environment." —Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., President, Water Keeper Alliance
"Finally a long-overdue expose of the shenanigans and subterfuge that lie behind the making of experts in America. Rampton and Stauber take us behind the scenes, inside corporate boardrooms, where marketing chiefs literally manufacture their own ‘independent experts’ to defend their products and practices. This groundbreaking book gives us a first look into the seamy side of corporate public relations, where academic experts of every stripe and kind are bought in various ways. An eye-opener." —Jeremy Rifkin
"This is a great book, and I think you should buy it. But since the point of the book is to get you to think for yourself and not trust experts, perhaps you should thumb through it yourself for a little while. I think of it as a field guide to the kinds of lies you can expect from the information age." —Bill McKibben
"Rampton and Stauber's book explodes the cult of expertise and shows how easily the media and their readers can be misled by public relations claims masquerading as science. This book makes the best case I know for complete disclosure of the financial conflicts of interest of scientists and the corporate influence on university research." —Sheldon Krimsky, Tufts University Professor, author of Hormonal Chaos: The Scientific and Social Origins of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis
The Third Man
A third party endorsement can position a new brand so that it's poised for great success or, conversely, can blunt a serious problem before it gets out of hand and proves disastrous for a particular product or for a company overall.
-Daniel Edelman, founder of Edelman PR Worldwide
Suppose we told you that this book holds the key to wealth beyond your dreams-and that it can make you stronger, healthier, more intelligent, and in every way a better person. More love in your life. Freedom from worry and want, and knowledge that will protect you from illness of all kinds.
As a discerning reader, you would probably greet these claims with skepticism. "These guys are obviously snake oil salesmen," you might think. "They would probably dress up in chicken suits if they thought it might get me to buy their book. There's no way I'm falling for this."
Yet suppose we could supply testimonials from important-sounding people-from people whose names you've heard and respect, or who carry impressive titles and credentials. You'll see that the publisher has placed a few testimonials on the back cover. We hope you'll take a moment to read them and ponder their significance.
Better yet, suppose the testimonials came from people with no apparent connection to us. If that were the case, you might be less skeptical. And suppose we had some way of contriving things so that these other people were actually speaking on our behalf, while merely appearing to be independent. If we could put words of praise in the mouths of seemingly disinterested, knowledgeable third parties-if we could get a buzz going evenamong your friends and neighbors-and if we could do all that while keeping you completely in the dark about our behind-the-scenes scheming-then, ironically, you might start to believe us.
Of course, it's highly unlikely that we could ever pull this off. Neither we nor our publisher could ever afford a scheme this grandiose. We're doing the best that we can, but we're no Microsoft.
Trust Us, We're Anti-antitrust
In April 1998, as the Justice Department's antitrust investigation of the Microsoft corporation began to evolve from a background nuisance into a serious challenge to the company's future, a large binder of confidential company documents found its way into the hands of the Los Angeles Times. Leaked by an anonymous whistle-blower, the documents detailed a multimillion-dollar media campaign designed for Microsoft by Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, one of the world's largest PR firms. The plan aimed to head off new antitrust investigations being considered by attorney generals in eleven U.S. states. The Times described the Edelman plan as "a massive media campaign designed to influence state investigators by creating the appearance of a groundswell of public support for the company." It proposed to hire local PR firms as subcontractors in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Freelance writers would be hired to write opinion pieces, which the local PR firms would then submit to local newspapers. "The elaborate plan . . . hinges on a number of unusual-and some say unethical-tactics," noted L.A. Times writers Greg Miller and Leslie Helm, "including the planting of articles, letters to the editor and opinion pieces to be commissioned by Microsoft's top media handlers but presented by local firms as spontaneous testimonials." In the words of the leaked documents, the goal was to generate "leveragable tools for the company's state-based lobbyists," positive press clippings that "state political consultants can use to bolster the case" for Microsoft.1
With documents in hand, the reporters played a cat-and-mouse game with Microsoft spokesman Greg Shaw, who denied knowing about the plan until they informed him of the internal memos in their possession, in which Shaw's own name figured prominently. Presented with this reality, he smoothly adjusted his story, admitting that the Edelman plan existed but describing it as merely a proposal. "The idea that we'd hire people who wouldn't identify themselves as representing Microsoft is totally false," Shaw said. "Actually, the proposal we received is quite mundane."2
After a few days of embarrassing editorials in the computer trade press, the Edelman plan was largely forgotten. A year later, it went unmentioned when several news stories discussed an "Open Letter to President Clinton from 240 Economists" that appeared in the form of full-page advertisements in the Washington Post and New York Times. The ads were paid for by a California-based, nonprofit think tank named the Independent Institute, a conservative organization that had been a leading defender of Microsoft since it first came under fire from federal prosecutors. "Consumers did not ask for these antitrust actions-rival business firms did," the Open Letter stated. "Many of the proposed interventions will weaken successful U.S. firms and impede their competitiveness abroad. . . . We urge antitrust authorities to abandon antitrust protectionism," stated the economists, who came from institutions as far apart and as prestigious as the University of California, Johns Hopkins, the University of Miami, American University, Loyola, Ohio State, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Columbia University, Stanford, and Cornell.3
Underneath the letter itself, a paragraph at the bottom of the newspaper ads advised readers that for more information they should read a new book titled Winners, Losers and Microsoft: Competition and Antitrust in High Technology, published by the Independent Institute and authored by two of its research fellows, economists Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis. The book was attracting favorable reviews from publications such as The Economist of London and Wired magazine. "Henceforth, any judges, economists, pundits or journalists who discuss Microsoft . . . without first dealing with the Liebowitz-Margolis critique should have their wrists soundly slapped," stated the Wall Street Journal.
Newsbytes magazine, a computer industry news service, noted that the Independent Institute's position "sounds like a brazenly partisan argument for Microsoft," but checked with a spokesman for the Independent Institute who said that Microsoft did not pay for either the Open Letter advertisements or the publication of Winners, Losers and Microsoft. The spokesman acknowledged that Microsoft was a member of the Institute, and "said membership dues for corporations start at approximately $1,000, but he would not comment on how much Microsoft has contributed to the institute over time," Newsbytes reported.4 In September 1999, however, a second group of leaked internal documents found its way into the hands of another reporter, this time Joel Brinkley of the New York Times, who reported that Microsoft was the largest single outside donor to the Independent Institute. During the 1999 fiscal year, Microsoft had provided 20 percent of the institute's operating budget. In addition to helping pay for publication of Winners, Losers and Microsoft, the software company had paid for the newspaper ads in which the Open Letter appeared. Brinkley's documents included a bill from Independent Institute President David Theroux to Microsoft attorney John Kelly, in the amount of $153,868.67-the full price of running the full-page ads, plus $5,966 in airfares and expenses for Theroux and a colleague to appear at a press conference timed to coincide with the ads' release.
"Theroux has long acknowledged Microsoft is a dues-paying member of his institute," Brinkley reported. "But he has insisted all along that Microsoft is 'just one of 2,000 members' and as such pays . . . an inconsequential part of the organization's overall budget that gives the company no special standing. All Microsoft gets for that, he said, is 'free copies of our publications, discounted tickets to our events.' He has also maintained Microsoft had nothing to do with the newspaper advertisements. The ads, he said in the interview, 'were paid for out of our general funds.'"5
The documents leaked to the New York Times put the lie to these claims, but Theroux was unfazed, attacking Brinkley's story as a "smear campaign" based on "purloined" documents. "It appears that some people in the computer industry may now be stooping to any and all tactics that might be used to discredit the Independent Institute and our powerful new book," he responded. "Mr. Brinkley credits as his source, 'a Microsoft adversary associated with the computer industry who refused to be identified.' . . . Bottom line: Do Brinkley's charges make our book and the Open Letter any less credible or accurate? Absolutely not."6
The Independent Institute calls itself a "non-partisan, scholarly, public policy research and educational organization . . . that sponsors peer-reviewed, scientific studies on a wide range of economic and social issues." That its defense of Microsoft was company-financed is irrelevant, Theroux claimed, because "the academic process we use is independent of sources of revenue." There is some truth to these claims. It would be a little too facile to portray the Independent Institute as a mere mouthpiece for the company. As Theroux pointed out when its funding sources were uncovered, the institute was on record opposing antitrust laws since 1990, long before Microsoft came under federal scrutiny. And while professors Liebowitz and Margolis have worked on occasion as paid consultants to Microsoft, the positions they espouse in Winners, Losers and Microsoft were likewise developed years before the company became a target of government investigations.
Yet it is also ridiculous to pretend that the Independent Institute is truly independent. Microsoft had an obvious motive for helping the institute amplify its voice through major advertising, and it is precisely for this reason that the amount of its funding remained confidential until it was leaked to a newspaper reporter. David Callahan, a writer who has researched the relationship between corporate funders and conservative think tanks, notes that Microsoft's relationship with the Independent Institute is "perfectly legal given current tax laws," but adds, "At the same time, something is clearly wrong with this situation. . . . It is naïve to imagine that conservative think tanks aren't extremely beholden to their funders in the business world or to the corporate leaders on their boards. This is simply the way that the power of the purse works. Just as politicians can't ignore the demands of major donors if they want to survive, neither can institutions ignore their benefactors."7
During the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia, one of her closest advisers was field marshal Grigori Potemkin, who used numerous wiles on her behalf. When Catherine toured the countryside with foreign dignitaries, Potemkin arranged to have fake villages built in advance of her visits so as to create an illusion of prosperity. Since that time, the term "Potemkin village" has become a metaphor for things that look elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lack substance.
Microsoft's financing of the Independent Institute is a modern-day public relations strategy that amounts to Potemkin punditry-the manipulation of public opinion by financing and publicizing views congenial to the public policy goals of their sponsors. When the Edelman plan was first exposed in the Los Angeles Times, PR industry trade publications interviewed public relations practitioners around the country who saw nothing remarkable or particularly disturbing about the campaign. "Based on what I've seen it's a fairly typical PR plan. It's what we do," the manager of a major PR firm said to Inside PR.
One leading PR practitioner-Robert Dilenschneider of the Dilenschneider Group-did criticize the Microsoft plan, calling it "a synthetic campaign." The strategy was ethically wrong, he said, and dangerous to Microsoft's own interests besides. "The media got wind of it, and they made the story the sleaze alley of the computer industry," Dilenschneider said. "It has made Bill Gates, the richest, mightiest person in the world, look a little bit like the Wizard of Oz; a little bit of smoke and mirrors, no substance."8 But Dilenschneider's critique was in the minority.
"Media plans are routine in PR although they don't sound too good when they hit print," said Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter, another leading PR trade publication, which went on to offer some advice that Microsoft might want to use to avoid getting caught in the future: "PR pros we asked about this said: 'Don't put anything in writing you don't want to be on page one of your newspaper.' . . . 'Talking points' on the subject matter should have been distributed but no media relations methodology. Then, if the points became public, the press could only report on the length and breadth of Microsoft's arguments."9
As Microsoft and its defenders pointed out, in fact, its corporate rivals were also aggressively spinning the public debate, using a similar "media relations methodology." Netscape, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems pushed their side of the antitrust case by launching the "Project to Promote Competition and Innovation in the Digital Age" (ProComp). Netscape hired former U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork as a spokesman, a casting decision that Hollywood might term "playing against type." Bork is the author of The Antitrust Paradox, a 1978 book sharply critical of government antitrust rules. "Bork cannot easily be dismissed as a knee-jerk critic of big, successful companies," noted the National Journal. "His reputation as Mr. Anti-antitrust goes back a long time; when he was a Yale law professor, his students nicknamed his course on the topic 'Pro-trust.'"10 Once in the employ of Netscape, however, Bork issued a 7,000-word position paper and opinion pieces for major newspapers, explaining that federal prosecutors were "simply stopping Microsoft from using its operating system as a club to bludgeon competition into the dust."11 The anti-Microsoft coalition also hired former presidential candidate Bob Dole, now with the high-powered Washington lobbying firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand. Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a recipient of $17,500 in campaign contributions from Netscape, Sun, and America Online, added further conservative firepower to the anti-Microsoft armada, as did the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), a think tank with links to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. PFF's major financial donors included Netscape, Oracle, and Sun, along with other Microsoft adversaries, including Gateway 2000, IBM, Hewlett Packard, America Online, and CompuServe.
Even the exposé of the Independent Institute that appeared in the New York Times turns out to have been orchestrated by the Oracle company. In order to get the goods on Microsoft's funding of the institute, Oracle had hired a detective firm to go "dumpster diving" through Microsoft's garbage, and had used the Washington PR firm of Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates to circulate the incriminating documents.12
None of these tactics are in any way unique to the computer industry. "This kind of plan is . . . part of the standard arsenal of companies in the cable and TV industry, and in other industries where there's government regulation," one source told PC Week magazine after reviewing the Edelman PR proposal.13 Computer industry columnist David Coursey went further. "If you think Microsoft is political bad news, compare computing/software generally to the telecommunications, broadcast and cable industries," he wrote. "Their political efforts make Microsoft look like the proverbial 98-pound weakling."14
Grigori Potemkin, if he were alive today, would probably be amazed at the number and sophistication of the political facades that have been erected in today's media landscape. Here are a few other examples of the process at work:
* After Nigeria's military dictatorship executed playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, the dictatorship and Shell Oil Company faced international condemnation. Nigeria's security forces had massacred villages and terrorized the indigenous Ogoni tribespeople in order to quell protests against the company's natural gas drilling operations. Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni leader, had denounced Shell for waging an "ecological war" against his people. Nigeria responded by ordering multipage, glossy color advertisements in black-owned U.S. newspapers and inviting newspaper editors on expense-paid "fact-finding tours" of Ogoniland. Minority newspapers in the United States are chronically strapped for cash, and the combination of windfall revenue and guided tours succeeded in blunting criticisms. In fact, several newspapers editorialized that it was "racist" to criticize Nigeria's dismal track record on human rights.
* In the fall of 1997, Georgetown University's Credit Research Center issued a study which concluded that many debtors are using bankruptcy as an excuse to wriggle out of their obligations to creditors. Lobbyists for banks and credit card companies seized on the study as they lobbied Congress for changes in federal law that would make it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy relief. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen cited the study in a Washington Times opinion column, offering Georgetown's academic imprimatur as evidence of the need for "bankruptcy reform." What Bentsen failed to mention was that the Credit Research Center is funded in its entirety by credit card companies, banks, retailers, and others in the credit industry. The study itself was produced with a $100,000 grant from Visa USA and MasterCard International, Inc. Bentsen also failed to mention that he himself had been hired to work as a credit-industry lobbyist.15
* In Oxford, England, the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) calls itself an "independent, non-profit organization founded to conduct research on social issues." It has issued a call to establish a British "code of practice" governing what reporters should be allowed to write about issues of science and public safety. Designed to put a stop to "irresponsible health scares," the code stipulates that "scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission." Such a code is necessary, SIRC suggests, because of the public's "riskfactorphobia," a term it has coined to describe a condition of excessive sensitivity to health concerns related to genetically engineered foods and foodborne illnesses. SIRC has also published popular reports in the British press about the pleasures of pub-hopping. When the British Medical Journal took a close look at the organization, however, it found that SIRC shares the same offices, directors, and leading personnel as a PR firm called MCM Research that claims to apply "social science" to solving the problems of its clients, who include prominent names in the liquor and restaurant industries. "Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much like PR initiatives?" asked MCM's website in a straightforward boast of its ability to deceive the public. "MCM conducts social/psychological research on the positive aspects of your business," the website continued. "The results do not read like PR literature, or like market research data. Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and your customers."16
* Corporate sponsors have formed "partnerships" with a number of leading nonprofit organizations in which they pay for the right to use the organizations' names and logos in advertisements. Bristol-Myers Squibb, for example, paid $600,000 to the American Heart Association for the right to display the AHA's name and logo in ads for its cholesterol-lowering drug Pravachol. The American Cancer Society reeled in $1 million from SmithKline Beecham for the right to use its logo in ads for Beecham's NicoDerm CQ and Nicorette antismoking aids. A Johnson & Johnson subsidiary countered by shelling out $2.5 million for similar rights from the American Lung Association in its ads for Nicotrol, a rival nicotine patch. In 1999 manufacturers spent $630 million on these and similar kinds of sponsorship deals, some unseemly, such as a deal between the Eskimo Pie Corporation and the American Diabetes Association, which was designed to create the impression that Eskimo's "Sugar Freedom" line of frozen desserts was endorsed by the American Diabetes Association, when in fact the desserts contain high levels of both total and saturated fat-a risky dietary choice for diabetics, who have a propensity for obesity and heart disease. Although the nonprofit organizations involved in these deals deny that the use of their names and logos constitutes an endorsement, the corporate sponsors have no such illusions. "PR pros view those third-party endorsements as invaluable ways to build goodwill among consumers for a client's product line," notes O'Dwyer's PR Services Report. For propriety's sake, however, a bit of discretion is necessary. "Don't use the word 'endorse' when speaking to executives from non-profits about their relationships with the private sector," O'Dwyer's advised. "The preferred non-profit vernacular is: recommended, sponsorship, approved, or partnership."17
* An organization called "Consumer Alert" frequently pops up in news stories about product safety issues. What the reporters almost never mention is that Consumer Alert is funded by corporations and that its positions are usually diametrically opposed to the positions taken by independent consumer groups such as consumers union. For example, consumer alert opposes flame-resistance standards for clothing fabrics issued by the consumer product safety commission, and defends products such as the diet drug dexfenfluramine (redux), which was taken off the market because of its association with heart valve damage. In contrast with consumers union, which is funded primarily by member subscriptions, consumer alert is funded by the industries whose products it defends-companies including Anheuser-Busch, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Philip Morris, Allstate Insurance Fund, American Cyanamid, Elanco, Eli Lilly, Exxon, Monsanto, Upjohn, Chemical Manufacturers Association, Ciba-Geigy, The Beer Institute, Coors, And Chevron USA.18
* In late 1993, a group called Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP) appeared, calling itself "the largest women's environmental group in Australia with thousands of supporters across the country. . . . The group comprises mainly mothers and other women concerned with the welfare and rights of Australian women." MOP's cause: a campaign against plastic milk bottles, centering on the issues of waste disposal, the carcinogenic risks of milk in contact with plastic, and reduction in the quality of milk as a result of exposure to light. "The message to the consumer is never buy milk in plastic containers," said spokesperson Alana Maloney. Membership in MOP was free, which prompted some people to wonder how the group could afford to carry out expensive publicity in support of its cause. Although MOP claimed branches across Australia, Alana Maloney seemed to be its only spokesperson. Searches of basic public records, such as voting rolls, could find no such person. MOP's letterhead listed three addresses in different cities, each of which turned out to be a post office box. Finally, in February 1995, an Australian newspaper discovered that "Mrs. Alana Maloney" was in fact Janet Rundle, who heads a public relations company called J. R. and Associates. Rundle is also a business partner of Trevor Munnery, who owns his own PR firm called Unlimited Public Relations, which works for the Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers (ALC)-the makers of paper milk cartons. In the wake of these public revelations, MOP sank from public view and has since disappeared.19
Someone Else's Mouth
These examples share a common reliance upon a public relations strategy known within the PR industry as the "third party technique." Merrill Rose, executive vice president of the Porter/Novelli PR firm, explains the technique succinctly: "Put your words in someone else's mouth."20 How effective is this strategy? According to a survey commissioned by Porter/Novelli, 89 percent of respondents consider "independent experts" a "very or somewhat believable source of information during a corporate crisis." Sometimes the technique is used to hype or exaggerate the benefits of a product. Other times it is used to create doubt about a product's hazards, or about criticisms that have been made of a company's business practices. The "someone elses" become Potemkin authorities, faithfully spouting the opinions of their benefactors while making it appear that their views are "independent." You used to see this technique in its most obvious and crude form in the television commercials that featured actors in physicians' lab coats announcing that "nine out of ten doctors prefer" their brand of aspirin. But advertisements are obvious propaganda, and the third party technique in its more subtle forms is designed to prevent audiences from even realizing what they are experiencing. "The best PR ends up looking like news," brags one public relations executive. "You never know when a PR agency is being effective; you'll just find your views slowly shifting."21
It is hard to say exactly when or where the third party technique originated as a conscious tactic for manipulating public opinion. Since antiquity, debates on important issues have frequently turned on appeals to the reverence that most people feel for a famous name. During the medieval period, the authority of priests and kings was considered a transcendent standard of truth, even when their doctrines clashed with the evidence of people's actual experience and scientific experiments. People who questioned officially accepted religious views were labeled heretics and could be arrested and killed on the grounds that he or she must have made a pact with the devil.
"It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that argument from authority commonly came to be treated as a fallacy," notes University of Toronto philosophy professor Douglas Walton in his book, Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority. "The rise of science brought with it a kind of positivist way of thinking, to the effect that knowledge should be based on scientific experiment and mathematical calculation and that all else is 'subjective.'"22
The rise of science accompanied a communications revolution, beginning with the printing press and continuing into the modern age of electronic media, and as Umberto Eco has observed, every new means of communication carries within itself a means of deception. Just as the invention of language made lying possible, the invention of mass media created newer, more sophisticated, subtle, and elaborate techniques of propaganda. Just as the anonymity of the Internet would eventually enable 14-year-old boys to pretend to be 24-year-old lingerie models, the mass media made it possible for the first time to conceal the identity of the voices that appeared within it, to deliver messages while hiding the identity of the messenger. It became possible to accomplish this act of concealment without ever committing an act of overt deception. Edward Bernays, the legendary "father of public relations" whose career we examine in Chapter 2, demonstrated an inkling of this potential during one of his early assignments as adviser to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, which was plagued by rumors that it was about to close. Bernays knew that denying the rumors directly would only give them more credence. Instead, he advised his client to prominently announce the signing of a ten-year contract with its world-famous chef. The mere identity of the celebrated chef became a symbolic statement of the message that the hotel wanted to deliver.
"How can the persuader reach these groups that make up the large public?" Bernays asked in one of the early formulations of the third party technique. "He can do so through their leaders, for the individual looks for guidance to the leaders of the groups to which he belongs. . . . They play a vital part in the molding of public opinion, and they offer the propagandist a means of reaching vast numbers of individuals, for with so many confusing and conflicting ideas competing for the individual's attention, he is forced to look to others for authority. No man, in today's complicated world, can base his judgments and acts entirely on his own examination and weighing of the evidence. . . . The group leader thus becomes a key figure in the molding of public opinion, and his acceptance of a given idea carries with it the acceptance of many of his followers."23
For Jack O'Dwyer, the third party technique is what distinguishes public relations from advertising. "Your firm may want to deal directly with the public or with your employees, customers, suppliers, etc.," he says, "but this is not the best use of a PR firm. The most leverage will be when the firm supplies useful information to influential reporters and analysts who have large audiences. You get third-party endorsement and wide readership or viewership at comparatively low cost. . . . Look for third-party endorsements, not booklets, sales promotion and ads."24
From a PR point of view, the third party technique offers several advantages:
* It offers camouflage, helping to hide the vested interest that lurks behind a message. If Philip Morris were to come out itself and declare that "attorneys need to be stopped from suing tobacco companies," the message would be laughed into oblivion. Similar skepticism is bound to greet Bill Gates when he writes an editorial on his own behalf, or a polluting company when it claims that pollution doesn't cause illness. Putting the same message in someone else's mouth gives it a credibility that it would not otherwise enjoy.
* It encourages conformity to a vested interest, while pretending to encourage independence. Sometimes, in fact, the message is designed to look like the very epitome of rebellion. Take, for example, a legendary publicity stunt orchestrated by Edward Bernays, which used suffragettes as third party proxies for the tobacco industry. In 1929, Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company and charged with the task of persuading women to smoke-an activity that was then considered "unfeminine" and socially unacceptable. Bernays set out to turn this liability into an advantage by establishing cigarettes as symbols of women's liberation. At his instigation, ten New York debutantes marched in the city's 1929 Easter Sunday parade, defiantly smoking cigarettes as a protest against women's inequality. Bernays dubbed it the "torches of liberty" brigade. "Front page stories in newspapers reported the freedom march in words and pictures," Bernays would recall later. "For weeks after the event, editorials praised or condemned the young women who had paraded against the smoking taboo." Women began lighting up in droves, and a few weeks later a Broadway theater let women inside its heretofore men's-only smoking room.25
* It replaces factual discourse with emotion-laden symbolism. Sometimes the identity of the messenger becomes symbolically more important than the content of the message itself. Timber industry consultant Ron Arnold, who founded the "Wise Use" movement as a pseudo-grassroots campaign against environmentalism, explains the rationale behind his use of the third party technique: "The public is completely convinced that when you speak as an industry, you are speaking out of nothing but self-interest. The pro-industry citizen activist group is the answer to these problems. It can be an effective and convincing advocate for your industry. It can utilize powerful archetypes such as the sanctity of the family, the virtue of the close-knit community, the natural wisdom of the rural dweller. . . . And it can turn the public against your enemies. . . . I think you'll find it one of your wisest investments over time."26
NOTES CHAPTER 1: THE THIRD MAN
1. Greg Miller and Leslie Helm, "Microsoft Tried to Grow 'Grass Roots,'" Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1998.
3. "An Open Letter to President Clinton from 240 Economists on Antitrust Protectionism," the Independent Institute, June 1999.
4. Robert MacMillan, "240 Economists Slam U.S. for Antitrust Actions," Newsbytes, June 2, 1999.
5. Joel Brinkley, "'Unbiased' Ads for Microsoft Came at a Price," New York Times, September 18, 1999, p. 1.
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8. Robert Dilenschneider, keynote speech at Media Relations '98, Marriott Marquis Hotel, New York, NY, April 27, 1998.
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11. Mary Mosquera, "Spin Accelerates as Microsoft Trial Nears," TechWeb News, October 16, 1998.
12. Ted Bridis, Glenn Simpson, and Mylene Mangalindan, "When Microsoft's Spin Got Too Good, Oracle Hired Private Investigators," Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2000, p. 1.
13. Mary Jo Foley, "Microsoft Still Considering Image Makeover Plan," PC Week Online, April 13, 1998.
14. David Coursey, "Microsoft's PR Effort Is Just Part of the Game," PC Magazine Online, April 10, 1998, ?http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/content/zdnn/0410/306168.html?, (July 25, 2000).
15. Robert Cwiklik, "Ivory Tower Inc.: When Research and Lobbying Mix," Wall Street Journal, June 8, 1998.
16. Annabel Ferriman, "An End to Health Scares?" British Medical Journal, vol. 319, September 11, 1999, p. 716.
17. "State Ags Investigate Healthcare PR Alliances," O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, October 1999, p. 1.
18. Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman, Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Groups in America (Essential Information, 1991), p. 82.
19. Bob Burton, "Sometimes the Truth Leaks Out: Failed PR Campaigns 'Down Under,'" PR Watch, vol. 4, no. 4 (Fourth Quarter 1997).
20. Merrill Rose, "Activism in the 90s: Changing Roles for Public Relations," Public Relations Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3 (1991), pp. 28-32.
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22. Douglas Walton, Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), pp. 33-35.
23. Edward L. Bernays, Public Relations (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952), pp. 163-164.
24. Jack O'Dwyer, "Hire a PR Firm to Get the Two 'I's'-Ink and Intelligence," O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, May 1997, p. 57.
25. Scott Cutlip, The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1994), p. 210.
26. Brian Tokar, "The Wise Use Backlash: Responding to Militant Anti-Environmentalism," The Ecologist, vol. 25, no. 4 (1995), p. 151.
|Preface: The Smell Test||1|
|Part I||The Age of Illusion|
|1||The Third Man||7|
|2||The Birth of Spin||31|
|3||Deciding What You'll Swallow||53|
|Part II||Risky Business|
|4||Dying for a Living||75|
|5||Packaging the Beast||99|
|7||Attack of the Killer Potatoes||152|
|Part III||The Expertise Industry|
|8||The Best Science Money Can Buy||195|
|9||The Junkyard Dogs||222|
|10||Global Warming Is Good For You||267|
Posted January 1, 2007
If everybody believes something, it's probably wrong! We call that Conventional Wisdom. 'Trust Us We're Experts' is one of the few books that I recommend to all of my patients that enter my office. The information in this book has the power to potentially save your life, since it provides the reader with the tools to spot propaganda that's regularly disseminated to the masses. Americans are the most conditioned, programmed beings on the planet. Not only are our thoughts and attitudes continually being shaped and molded our very awareness of the whole design seems like it is being subtly and inexorably erased! It is an exhausting and endless task to keep explaining to people how most issues of conventional wisdom are scientifically implanted in the public consciousness by a thousand media clips per day. I feel that Stauber and Rampton do an excellent job at guiding the reader through the PR industry and expert deception that is propagated daily. My recommendation is to buy this book today then kill your TV! - Dr. Matthew J. Loop (Author of 'Cracking the Cancer Code')
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