Nine Out of Ten Doctors Prefer...

Think about how many times you've heard an evening news anchor spit out some variation on the phrase, "According to experts..." It's such a common device that most of us hardly hear it anymore. But we do hear the "expert" -- the professor or doctor or watchdog group -- tell us who to vote for, or what to eat, or when to buy stock. And, most of the time, we trust them.

Now ask yourself, how many times has that news anchor revealed who those experts are, and where they get their funding, and what constitutes their political agenda? If you answered never, you'd be close.

That's the driving complaint behind "Trust Us, We're Experts," a new book co-authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of the Center for Media and Democracy. Unlike many so-called "experts," the Center's agenda is quite overt -- to expose the shenanigans of the public relations industry, which pays, influences and even invents a startling number of those experts.

The third book co-authored by Stauber and Rampton, "Trust Us" hit bookstore shelves in January. We caught up with John Stauber, who is currently on a nationwide publicity tour, to ask him a few questions about the book, the PR industry and the egregious manipulation of facts for corporate profit.

AlterNet: What was the most surprising or disturbing manipulation of public opinion you reveal in your book?

Stauber: The most disturbing aspect is not a particular example, but rather the fact that the news media regularly fails to investigate so-called 'independent experts' associated with industry front groups. They all have friendly sounding names like 'Consumer Alert' and 'The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition,' but they fail to reveal their corporate funding and their propaganda agenda, which is to smear legitimate heath and community safety concerns as 'junk science fearmongering.'

The news media frequently uses the term 'junk science' to smear environmental health advocates. The PR industry has spent more than a decade and many millions of dollars funding and creating industry front groups which wrap them in the flag of 'sound science.' In reality, their 'sound science' is progress as defined by the tobacco industry, the drug indsutry, the chemical industry, the genetic engineering industry, the petroleum industry, and so on.

AlterNet: Have you taken heat from the PR industry about this or any of your previous work?

Stauber: We are occasionally attacked in print by PR professionals, but the more prevalent attitude shared with us off the record is to compliment our work, and tell us that we have an accurate portrayal of the business of propaganda, but that in fact all that goes on in the PR world is even worse that we can imagine. I always respond by telling the PR worker that they should write their own book, bare their soul and educate the public about their years of propaganda for firms like Edelman, Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum and the rest. But that usually short circuits the conversation.

AlterNet: Is the public becoming more aware of PR tactics and false experts? Or are those tactics and experts becoming more savvy and effective?

Stauber: The truth is that the situation is getting worse, not better. More and more of what we see, hear and read as 'news' is actually PR content. On any given day much or most of what the media transmits or prints as news is provided by the PR industry. Its off press releases, the result of media campaigns, heavily spun and managed, or in the case of 'video news releases' its fake TV news -- stories completely produced and supplied for free by former journalists who've gone over to PR. TV news directors air these VNRs as news. So the media not only fails to identify PR manipulations, it is the guilty party by passing them on as news.

AlterNet: What's the solution for the excesses of the PR industry? Just more media literacy and watchdog orgs like yours? Or should the PR industry be regulated in some way?

In our last chapter, Question Authority, we identify some of the most common propaganda tactics so that individuals and journalists and public interest scientists can do a better job of not being snowed and fooled. But ultimately those who have the most power and money in any society are going to use the most sophisticated propaganda tactics available to keep democracy at bay and the rabble in line.

There are some specific legislative steps that could be taken without stepping on the First Amendment. One is that all non-profit tax exempt organizations -- charities and educational groups for instance -- should be required by law to reveal their institutional funders of say, $500 or more. That way when a journalist or a citizen hears that a scientific report from a group like the American Council on Science and Health, a quick trip to an IRS web site could reveal that this groups gets massive infusions of industry money, and that the corporations that fund it benefit from its proclamations that pesticides are safe, genetically engineered food will save the planet, lead contamination isn't really such a big deal, climate change isn't happening, and so on. The public cleary doesn't understand that most non-profit groups (not ours, by the way) take industry and government grants, or are even the non-profit arm of industry.

AlterNet: What lead you, personally, to become one of the PR industry's most vocal critics?

Stauber: In 1990 I found myself spied upon by the world's largest PR firm, Burson-Marsteller. I had organized a conference in Washington, DC, of a couple dozen leaders of farm, consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups all opposed to the FDA's eventual approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, called rBGH.

Now, I personally knew everyone participating, except a young woman who claimed to be with the Maryland Consumers Council, a group of 'housewives' who said they wanted to make sure their kids didn't have to drink milk from cows injected with the hormonal drug rBGH. Well, a few months later a reporter called and asked if I knew that Monsanto had a spy in our meeting. I investigated and discovered that the consumer group was phoney, that the woman worked for Burson-Marsteller, and that one of B-M's clients was Eli Lilly corporation who along with Monsanto was one of the developers of rBGH.

I found out that this was typical of corporate PR, and I was outraged at having been spied upon and infiltrated. So I focused my activism onto the PR industry, founded PR Watch in 1993, and it has been very sweet revenge indeed.

If the PR industry doesn't like what we do, they only have themselves to blame for our existence.

The following is an adaptation from Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (Tarcher Putnam, 2001)

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.

The modern-day public relations industry frequently uses a 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. If he were alive today, Potemkin 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 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.

* 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." 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.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

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."

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."

For more information, or to order the book, visit www.prwatch.org.

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