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Sleuths of Spin

By harnessing the investigative power of hundreds of citizen journalists, media activists John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton aim to reinvent journalism.
 
 
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Given the sorry state of journalism these days, The Center for Media and Democracy's John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton are setting about an ambitious – yet necessary – undertaking: reinventing journalism.

Several right-wing activists/pundits/columnists have already developed their own roadmap for reinventing journalism. The latest case is that of Jeff Gannon, whose real name is James D. Guckert. As Gannon, Guckert reported for a conservative news site called Talon News. Somehow, Guckert gained access to White House briefings and and was seen tossing softballs at White House officials. Gannon/Guckert even got called on by President Bush at a news conference. He ended his question with "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Gannon/Guckert had about 13 of his 15 minutes before Media Matters for America and John Aravosis' Americablog blew the lid off his charade. Underneath that lid was James D. Guckert on full display – he was outed as a contributor to such sites as Hotmilitarystud.com, Workingboys.net, Militaryescorts.com, MilitaryescortsM4M.com and Meetlocalmen.com.

The administration's payoffs to syndicated newspaper columnists Armstrong Williams, Mike McManus and Maggie Gallagher may not be nearly as scrumptious a story as the Gannon/Guckert Affair, but they could be far more significant. After all, this loose coalition of the shilling received government money to write about their support for Bush administration policies. In early January, USA Today revealed that Williams, a prominent African-American radio and television personality, had received $240,000 from the Department of Education – through a contract with the Ketchum public relations firm – for his support for the president's No Child Left Behind project. Mike McManus and Maggie Gallagher received their checks from the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president's healthy marriages initiative.

Sleuths of spin John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton have exposed how corporate shills and government spokespersons manipulate the media and undermine democracy for more than a decade. Through the Madison, Wis.-based Center for Media and Democracy, they have produced a number of groundbreaking books, including Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press, 1995), Trust Us, We're Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (Tarcher/Penguin, 2001), Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (Tarcher/Penguin, 2003) and most recently, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America into a One-Party State (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004).

Two years ago, the Center launched Disinfopedia, a web site that Rampton described in a recent e-mail as "an experiment in media democracy and citizen investigative journalism." Rampton pointed out that Disinfopedia had "grown into a leading resource on the players who work behind the scenes to shape public opinion and public policy." Since its mission has evolved and expanded during the past two years, the Center recently renamed it SourceWatch. (Disclosure: I have been cited by SourceWatch.)

Rampton maintains that SourceWatch "is an example of media democracy in action – an information source that is truly 'of, by and for the people' who use it. It has become a tool that journalists and activists use to research and report on key issues such as media concentration and reform, democratic revitalization, environmental health and sustainability, the war in Iraq, corporate manipulation of government agencies, and the power and influence of right-wing special interest groups and lobbies."

In late February, I conducted an e-mail interview John Stauber. We covered a number of issues related to the media, starting with the current payola scandal.

Bill Berkowitz: How do you view the recent scandals involving the Bush administration giving payoffs to Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus in exchange for favorable coverage of their issues?

I'm very happy to see this coming out, but it's really just the tip of an iceberg. Sheldon Rampton and I wrote our expose of the Public Relations industry, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You , ten years ago. It's filled with propaganda horror stories. Forty percent or more of what passes for news and information these days is the result of organized PR campaigns. It's been wonderful to see these scandals exposed and others such as the "Karen Ryan reporting" news reports. Karen Ryan runs a PR firm, and her government funded video news releases (VNRs) are aired as news by hundreds of TV news directors.

In Toxic Sludge we reported that there were already thousands of corporate and government VNRs produced and aired each year, and that number continues to increase. The skillful manipulation of the media by professional propagandists, often with the consent and approval of editors and news directors, is rampant and worsening.

Do you think there will be more revelations?

The mainstream media does a horrific job of reporting on itself, and I think that there will be more revelations only to the extent that independent journalists are able to document and expose these abuses. The best PR, like the best propaganda, is invisible. In the more than a decade that our organization has been reporting on and exposing propaganda in the media, not one major newspaper to my knowledge has committed a reporter to this as an investigative beat.

What can reporters do to break through the sound bite/talking points media culture?

Reporters need to understand the business of propaganda and to view the public relations industry and the culture of spin as anathema to journalism and to democracy. Today PR flacks outnumber real working journalists, and many of the flacks are former reporters who know exactly how best to manage, cajole and manipulate the media because they are from the media. J-schools have combined journalism and public relations and told students that it's all the same, it requires the same skills, and there is little fundamental difference. This is like combining accounting and embezzling as a field of study.

Today in the corporate mainstream media reporters are overworked, underpaid and pressured to avoid topics that offend advertisers. Reporters need to dedicate themselves to real journalism and find ways to practice it. Journalism is a sacred trust in a democracy, and if you don't believe that you should probably go into PR.

Your books have generally focused on the way the American people are getting hoodwinked by PR companies that set and then explain the agenda of powerful corporations and politicians. Is there any way to render them less powerful?

Simply stated, PR firms are corporations that help other corporations and government agencies to manage public information, perceptions and policy. Many people think that propaganda doesn't exist in democratic societies, that it is a problem of dictatorships. Alex Carey, the Australian academic, and others have pointed out that it is precisely in democracies where sophisticated, hidden propaganda is most prevalent, and the news media has become the major disseminator of propaganda, rather than a force for exposing it.

In our book Weapons of Mass Deception , Sheldon and I explained how rather than challenge Bush's war and exposing the falsehoods and failures in Bush's claims, the U.S. news media became a propaganda arm of the government. It shut out and ridiculed critics of the war, and enabled it to take place. There are many fundamental reforms that could be legislated to limit and control the power of corporations to dominate our news and our politics. But powerful special interests and governmental ideologues will use the best available techniques of propaganda to manipulate and manage public perception. It is the responsibility of journalists, educators and citizen activists to expose and thwart such manipulation, and it's specifically our mission.

Given such a closed system, why the efforts around building media democracy?

Twelve years ago when I founded our investigative quarterly PR Watch , I chose the name Center for Media and Democracy for our non-profit organization in order to emphasize the idea that without a vigorous, independent, courageous and muckraking media, democracy cannot survive, especially in this age of cranked-up propaganda. I've been happy to see the term "media democracy" come into wide use. With the emergence of the internet it has taken on new meaning in the age of blogs, indymedia, wiki web sites like SourceWatch, and all the wonderful reporting from web sites like AlterNet, Common Dreams, Buzzflash, WorkingForChange, and those associated with the left[ist] press.

Media democracy seems like a catch-all phrase that is pretty ambiguous. How would you define it?

Media democracy means that we recognize that one-way, top-down, corporate mass communications has become much more a foe of democracy than its friend. Democratic society is impossible without a courageous and independent news media. The dominant mainstream media, the MSM, is driven by the corporate bottom line and filled primarily with fluff, sensationalism, right-wing politics, PR posing as news, and a commitment to serve corporate advertisers. We need a powerful new political movement to fundamentally challenge and change the corporate media environment, and we also need to create new media that takes advantage of internet technology to better serve democracy. Community radio stations, non-profit media watchdogs, investigative bloggers, and alternative news websites are all becoming important producers of online web-based news and information that is building media democracy. One project our organization is currently discussing with other groups committed to media democracy is to develop standards for online journalism that enable it to fulfill its promise of becoming a vital media that serves our democracy.

What makes "SourceWatch" unique?

SourceWatch is unique because it is an experiment in collaborative online investigative reporting. It's a very powerful educational, organizing, research and networking tool that allows a growing community of global citizens to collaborate to research and write investigative news articles.

The open source "wiki" software that powers SourceWatch is in the public domain, as are the articles that are written. Anyone can go to SourceWatch and read, write and edit the information there. And every change made in any article is logged for transparency. Bob Burton, an investigative journalist, author and activist from Australia, is our online editor.

We are constantly striving to improve the accuracy, depth and quality of articles on SourceWatch. It is only two years old [it was originally launched as Disinfopedia], and we are really just at the beginning of this experiment. Anyone who first hears about it understandably says, as I did when my colleague Sheldon Rampton proposed SourceWatch, "what good is it if anyone with internet access can write or edit or for that matter vandalize its articles?" But the fact is that the vast majority of users are dedicated to the concept of investigative online journalism, and by insisting on journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness, and relegating opinions to an opinion page, the experiment is working.

One problem it is solving is that by harnessing the investigative power of hundreds of citizen journalists, we are finally able to keep track of the myriad of industry front groups, PR firms, lobbyists and anti-environmental PR campaigns that exist and are created every day.

SourceWatch has been a great success in its first two years, yet it is just starting to take off. That said, everyone who reads an article on the site should understand its limitations; that the article has not necessarily been vetted by us, that no article is 100 percent accurate, that anyone can contribute, and that it is a work in progress with no copyright on its articles. So SourceWatch, like every other bit of the news media, needs to be read with a critical eye. But with that qualification I must say that I find most of the information very accurate and much of it very unique. Wiki websites like SourceWatch are becoming an important part of the online information environment.

Are you working on another book? What will it be about and when can we expect it?

Sheldon and I have just begun outlining a new book examining media corruption, spin and the growing media democracy movement. It would in some ways be a return to the territory of our first and third books, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You and Trust Us, We're Experts . We hope to have it out in hardcover sometime in 2006. We've co-authored two books in less than two years, timely paperbacks exposing the selling of the war on Iraq and the political propaganda and strategy of the Republican right. It seems to be a good time to step back and examine how citizens might understand and overcome the toxic propaganda emanating from the right-wing echo chamber.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.