Review of Toxic Sludge
April 26, 2000
Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public-Relations Industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton Common Courage Press. 236 pages. $16.95.Authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton have penned a startling portrait of the poisoning of the American democratic process by the nation's professional spin doctors. Toxic Sludge exposes the bare-knuckled, invisible hand guiding and shaping public opinions. It's the hand of the master practitioners who work behind the scenes for the giant public-relations firms. P.T. Barnum may have been America's first P.R. expert, but it wasn't until this century that the industry really took off. Today it's a $10 billion-a-year business employing, according to Stauber and Rampton, 150,000 "flacks" -- 20,000 more than the number of working journalists in this country. The contemporary use of P.R. has moved way beyond issuing ho-hum news releases and engaging in damage control. The top P.R. firms now set out to change laws and regulations, develop phony grassroots political campaigns, infiltrate and spy on local citizens' organizations, and suppress information damaging to the interests of their corporate clients. Readers will find an inside view into how these flacks have distorted debate on such issues as nuclear-waste disposal, BGH, animal rights, national health care, NAFTA, and smoking. One chapter in the book, from which it takes its name, plows new public opinion. The Kuwaiti government hired as many as twenty firms prior to the Persian Gulf War to shape American views. Mexico spent $50 million on P.R. in the United States to help pass NAFTA. And our own government, in violation of U.S. laws, created a covert P.R. campaign to raise support for its dirty contra war against Nicaragua. Equally disturbing is how the mainstream media rely upon electronic and print news feeds direct from the P.R. industry for news stories aimed at an unsuspecting citizenry. This blurring of news and views is increasing, observe the authors, as media centralization and corporate downsizing accelerate. Toxic Sludge explains the impact of the latest data-collecting technology on the ability of the P.R. flacks to measure and massage our beliefs. Write Stauber and Rampton: "P.R.'s cunning half-truths and 'spins' appeal to us and work on us because they come from us, from the constant plumbing of the public mind by surveys, opinion polls, focus groups, and information gathered as we apply for bank loans, purchase goods with credit cards, place birth announcements in newspapers, vote, and make phone calls. Every day we as individuals are leaving behind the electronic equivalent of fingerprints and DNA samples that marketing and P.R. firms lift from the commercial landscape, and refine for use in their efforts to manipulate our minds." The breadth of the ongoing mental meddling taking place in American society and chronicled by this book will be eye-opening for even the most cynical and jaded politicos. The book is well-documented and filled with personal testimony straight from the P.R. whizzes themselves on how they're changing our minds. It's a sobering account for any activist seeking political change.