Diane Farsetta

Corporate Think Tank Dives into Water Policy

In May 2008, the major law firm Hunton & Williams launched the Water Policy Institute (WPI), a think tank-esque, industry-supported consortium formed "to address water supply, quality and use issues," according to its website.

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What the Pentagon Pundits Were Selling on the Side


The Pentagon launched its covert media analyst program in 2002, to sell the Iraq war. Later, it was used to sell an image of progress in Afghanistan, whitewash the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and defend the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping, as David Barstow reported in his New York Times expose.



But the pundits weren't just selling government talking points. As Robert Bevelacqua, William Cowan and Carlton Sherwood enjoyed high-level Pentagon access through the analyst program, their WVC3 Group sought "contracts worth tens of millions to supply body armor and counterintelligence services in Iraq," reported Barstow. Cowan admitted to "push[ing] hard" on a WVC3 contract, during a Pentagon-funded trip to Iraq.

Then there's Pentagon pundit Robert H. Scales Jr. The military firm he co-founded in 2003, Colgen, has an interesting range of clients, from the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Operations Command, to Pfizer and Syracuse University, to Fox News and National Public Radio.



Of the 27 Pentagon pundits named publicly to date, six are registered as federal lobbyists. That's in addition to the less formal -- and less transparent -- boardroom to war-room influence peddling described above. (There are "more than 75 retired officers" who took part in the Pentagon program overall, according to Barstow.)

The Pentagon pundits' lobbying disclosure forms help chart what can only be called a military-industrial-media complex. They also make clear that war is very good for at least some kinds of business.


Some disclosures we would have liked to see


Fox News analystTimur J. Eads works for the military contractor Blackbird Technologies. His job title there, "vice-president of government relations," is often used to describe someone who crafts lobbying strategies but may not take part in lobbying meetings. So, it's not surprising that Eads isn't listed on Blackbird's lobbying disclosure forms. (In 2007 and 2008, Blackbird lobbied Congress on "communications technologies" and the National Guard on "information systems.")

From 2001 to 2003, Eads was in the lobbying trenches for EMC Corporation, a multinational "information infrastructure" company. Eads helped lobby Congress and a long list of federal agencies -- including the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard -- for "funding for data storage infrastructure." EMC's annual report (PDF) for 2003 lists the Air Force Materiel Command and Pentagon Renovation and Construction Program Office among its U.S. government clients.



Prior to EMC, Eads lobbied for the major defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). In 1999 and 2000, he was on SAIC's million-dollar-plus lobbying team, influencing federal spending on the armed services, foreign operations, national security and Veterans Administration, among many other appropriations bills.

Another Fox analyst and Pentagon pundit, John C. Garrett, has an even longer list of lobbying clients. He's worked for the Patton Boggs firm since at least 1999. Thanks to the Pentagon analyst program, Garrett offers clients the benefits of his "weekly access and briefings with the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high level policy makers," as Barstow noted.

Garrett has helped Bushmaster Firearms lobby Congress, the Defense and Homeland Security Departments on the "procurement of small arms" and "foreign military sales of small arms." He's lobbied Congress and Homeland Security on "government smart card initiatives," for the Datacard Group; the Defense and Homeland Security Departments on "foreign military sales," for Empresa Brasileira de Aeronautica; on Homeland Security "open source intelligence and fusion center programs," for Factiva; the Defense Department on "federal battery purchases," for Interstate Batteries; and Congress and the Defense, Commerce, Homeland Security and Treasury Departments for "rules to prohibit or regulate foreign government subsidization of M&A [mergers and acquisitions] activity," for Terex Corporation, a multinational heavy equipment manufacturer.

And those are just some of Garrett's lobbying contracts in 2007.



The lobbying activity of Pentagon pundit and CBS analystJeffrey D. McCausland has been more focused on Iraq. He's the "director of national security affairs" at the Washington, D.C. law and lobby firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

McCausland lobbied on "private security contracting issues in Iraq," for Securewest International in 2004. The UK-based security firm announced that it had landed a $2.5 million contract with the Coalition Provisional Authority in March 2004, to supply "guards for the military complex at Umm Qasr as well as bodyguards for Iraqi and other personnel," according to the Herald Express in South Devon. At the time, Securewest vice-president Paul Singer said, "Kuwait and Iraq have long been our target markets. … We had a chance to visit the region only to realise how massive the market is." But when the contract ended in late 2004, Securewest decided against seeking more Iraq work. Singer explained, "It was always a difficult place to work and … the kidnapping and execution of 12 Nepalese workers caused great concern." Many of Securewest's staff are from Nepal or India.

But McCausland was hardly at a loss for clients. In 2003, he lobbied Congress and the Defense and Commerce Departments for "contract procurement in Iraq," on behalf of Al-Najat. In 2004, he lobbied on "government procurement / Coalition Provisional Authority" issues for Cross VetPharm, and on "business development in the Middle East," for Educational Testing Service. In 2004 and 2005, McCausland lobbied the State and Commerce Departments on "healthcare development in the Middle East," on behalf of Gemini Consulting.



Fellow CBS commentator Joseph W. Ralston is the last publicly named Pentagon pundit with a significant stack of of lobbying disclosure forms. "Soon after signing with CBS, General Ralston was named vice chairman of the Cohen Group, a consulting firm headed by a former defense secretary, William Cohen, himself now a 'world affairs' analyst for CNN," reported Barstow.

Not surprisingly, Ralston's lobbying clients include major military contractors. In 2006, he lobbied the Defense Department on "issues related to export of tactical fighter aircraft and defense technology," for Lockheed Martin; and the State Department on "federal funding of demilitarization efforts abroad," for General Dynamics. In 2006 and 2007, Ralston helped Fischer Properties identify "military family housing opportunities," and Pratt & Whitney find "market opportunities for military aircraft engines."


Multiple media mistakes, on lobbying and propaganda


As The Nation pointed out shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq, many of the retired officers hired to provide war commentary had significant conflicts of interest. At the time, Fox and NBC brushed off questions about their military analysts' financial and other interests as irrelevant to or separate from their on-air commentary.



Today, the broadcast and cable networks are steadfastly refusing to cover or otherwise address the Pentagon military analyst program, with very few exceptions. In this case, though, the pundits' undeclared financial interests are only part of a larger and much more serious problem. These officers participated in a covert government program designed to shape U.S. public opinion -- an illegal program, and one that relied on the willingness of major media to play along, without asking too many questions. And that's exactly what happened.

The media outlets that featured the Pentagon's pundits need to address both aspects of this debacle -- that they failed to identify or disclose conflicts of interest, and that they helped propagandize U.S. news audiences. NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard's recent column only mentioned the former. She pointed to NPR's new "detailed guidelines for vetting on-air guests and looking for potential conflicts of interests" as the solution. But those guidelines don't include questions about contacts with or materials provided by government officials, or trips funded by government agencies. Instead, Shepard concerned herself with the question of whether NPR analyst Robert Scales does or "does not spout the Pentagon's line."



Memo to Shepard: It's illegal for the U.S. government to propagandize its own citizens, regardless. And instead of debating shades of gray, shouldn't NPR be denouncing any propaganda attempt as antithetical to the ideal of a free press?

Increasingly, news audiences are realizing the many ways in which interested parties skew media coverage. Media outlets need to wake up to that reality and work to strengthen their safeguards in defense of the public interest. Their only alternative is to start composing their next weak and belated mea culpa, in a desperate attempt to protect their ever-dwindling credibility.

How Many Iraqis Have Really Died?

It's one of the most controversial questions today: How many Iraqis have died since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion?

That there is no definitive answer should not come as a surprise, given the chaotic situation in Iraq. Still, it's an important question to ask for obvious humanitarian, moral and political reasons.

Theoretically, the public health surveys and polls that have been conducted in Iraq -- at great risk to the people involved -- should help inform and further the debate. But the data is complicated by different research approaches and their attendant caveats. The matter has been further confused by anemic reporting, with news articles usually framed as a "he said/she said" story, instead of an exploration and interpretation of research findings.

These are the conditions under which spin thrives: complex issues, political interests and weak reporting. So it's not too surprising that last month saw a spate of what international health researcher Dr. Richard Garfield calls "Swift Boat editorials."

Attack: Iraq research

Garfield co-authored a 2004 study, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, that estimated that 98,000 more Iraqis died in the 18 months following the U.S. invasion than would have died otherwise. The recent editorials skewered a 2006 follow-up study that estimated more than 650,000 Iraqi "excess deaths" in the 40 months following the invasion. (Garfield was not involved with the 2006 study; in fact, he co-wrote a critique of it to which the study authors have responded.)

"The truth was irrelevant," fumed the Wall Street Journal's Jan. 9 editorial, adding that the 2006 Lancet study "could hardly be more unreliable," yet its 650,000 figure "was trumpeted by the political left because it fit a narrative that they wanted to believe. And it wasn't challenged by much of the press because it told them what they wanted to hear."

In a more measured column published the previous day, the Washington Times also rejected the Lancet study's 650,000 figure, in favor of the up to 87,000 "documented civilian war deaths" reported by the Iraq Body Count project. The two figures represent "the difference between epochal human tragedy and genocidal madness," opined the newspaper. A similar editorial by conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby ran in the Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune the following week. Other editorials and news articles questioning the Lancet study appeared throughout January.

What fueled renewed criticism of 15-month-old research? Two things: a National Journal article that described what it called "potential problems" with the Lancet study, and a new survey from the Iraqi health ministry and World Health Organization (WHO) that estimated 151,000 "violent deaths … from March 2003 through June 2006," the same period covered by the Lancet paper.

The recent newspaper editorials were prompted by, and quoted extensively from, the National Journal's Jan. 5 cover story, "Data Bomb." That article (and the editorials it inspired) bemoaned a lack of skepticism towards the 2006 Lancet study, especially among reporters. "Within a week, the study had been featured in 25 news shows and 188 articles in U.S. newspapers and magazines," wrote co-authors Neil Munro and Carl M. Cannon.

However, this characterization neglects the fact that much of the initial coverage of the Lancet study was skeptical bordering on critical. A review of October 2006 U.S. newspaper and wire stories containing the words "Lancet," "Iraq," and "dead" or "death" found that most news reports presented the study as "controversial" (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor, among others), "discredited" (Boston Herald), "politically motivated" (Baltimore Sun), or even an "October surprise" (Washington Post) designed to hurt Republicans in the November 2006 midterm elections. (In contrast, letters to the editor that cited the Lancet study that month unanimously accepted its conclusions, as did the vast majority of editorial columns.)

Perhaps a better measure of the Lancet study's impact is whether it led reporters to revise their Iraqi casualty estimates. In March 2007, many news outlets marked the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion by assessing the Iraq War to date. In its coverage, ABC News repeatedly asserted that 60,000 Iraqis had died, as the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted in an action alert. NBC News and the Los Angeles Times also used the 60,000 figure, which was the number of Iraqi civilian deaths from violence given by Iraq Body Count at the time.

"Given the difficulties inherent in gathering precise data on Iraqi deaths, journalists should cite a plausible range of casualty estimates rather than using the lowest estimate available," argued FAIR. Some major outlets -- including the Washington Post, CNN and CBS -- did just that. On her March 19, 2007 show, CBS's Katie Couric explained, "Estimates of the [Iraqi] dead range from 30,000 to as high as 600,000."

Throwing data bombs

The mixed impact of the Lancet study on Iraq reporting aside, Munro and Cannon's article "Data Bomb" raised serious questions about the Lancet researchers and their work. Munro and Cannon categorized their critiques as: "possible flaws in the design and execution of the study," "a lack of transparency in the data" and "political preferences held by the authors and funders."

Two of the authors of the Lancet study, Drs. Gilbert Burnham and Les Roberts, have responded directly to the National Journal article. Asked whether he accepted or rejected their explanations, Neil Munro told me that he didn't "want to get into a back and forth" argument.

To give a sense of the debate, the following summarizes what seem to be the most serious allegations in "Data Bomb," along with responses from the Lancet study authors and others.

Questions about Iraqi medical researcher Dr. Riyadh Lafta

In "Data Bomb," Munro and Cannon wrote that the Lancet study rests "on the data provided by Lafta, who operated with little American supervision and has rarely appeared in public or been interviewed about his role." Moreover, "Lafta had been a child-health official in Saddam Hussein's ministry of health when the ministry was trying to end international sanctions against Iraq by asserting that many Iraqis were dying from hunger, disease or cancer caused by spent U.S. depleted-uranium shells remaining from the 1991 Persian Gulf War."

Munro told me that Lafta "declined to speak to [National Journal] under any conditions." He added, "I got copies of articles that Lafta had prepared under Saddam's rule … Roberts hadn't read them and Burnham didn't have copies of them." Munro declined to tell me whether he found Lafta's previous research to be questionable. On CNN's Glenn Beck show, Munro wasn't so reticent, calling Lafta's earlier work "crummy scientific papers" that were "part of Saddam's effort to lift economic sanctions."

Burnham and Roberts responded that Lafta "has a long record as a solid partner for international research studies," including having worked with the United Nations on polio surveillance. They pointed out that the Iraqi mortality data generated in 2004 and 2006 under Lafta has "multiple points of internal consistency, which point to the solidity of the data." With regards to Lafta's silence, they said that he "has asked that the media do not contact him in Iraq, because of concerns for his safety and that of his family."

Burnham explained to science blogger Tim Lambert, "Riyadh has worked with a number of international researchers, and we checked his work out with them first. All found him to be a diligent and responsible researcher … As far as the papers go, I did look at the 1997 [Lafta study] … and this is a perfectly respectable nutrition survey." In response to Munro and Cannon's questioning of Lafta's political leanings, Burnham added, "I have tried to point out that Riyadh Lafta is part of the university system … not the Ministry of Health. He was one of the very few doctors who refused to join the Baath Party under Saddam."

Richard Garfield also vouched for Lafta, telling Lambert, "I knew Riyadh's boss some years before the invasion. … I got to know Riyadh in the days following the invasion, when I worked closely with his department chair." Garfield added that Lafta's sanctions research, in the context of "the [papers] that I read in Iraq prior to 2003, would stand out as an apolitical report, one that might even get the author in trouble for its lack of repetitive politicized language commonly used then in Iraq."

Lambert posted two of Lafta's sanctions studies on his blog. Both clearly explain their methods, use WHO standards to define malnutrition and contain little editorializing. "These results could be attributed to the effect of embargo," the 1997 Lafta paper cautiously stated. The most colorful part of his 2000 paper was the ending sentence: "So we can conclude from results that the most important and widespread underlying causes of the deterioration of child health standards in Iraq is the long-term impact of the nonhumanized economic sanction imposed through united nation [sic] resolution."

Munro also criticized Lafta's earlier research for lacking data on conditions prior to the sanctions. It's true they don't contain pre-sanctions numbers, but Lafta's 1997 paper cited a UNICEF study to support his assertion that "before the embargo severe clinical malnutrition was rarely seen in Iraq."

Regarding the oversight of Lafta's work, Burnham told Tim Lambert, "We have all the original field survey forms. Immediately following the study we met up with Riyadh … and Shannon [Doocy], Riyadh and I went through the data his team had computer entered and verified each entry line-by-line against the original paper forms from the field. We rechecked each data item and went through the whole survey process cluster-by-cluster. We considered each death and what the circumstances were and how to classify it. Back in Baltimore as we were in the analysis we checked with Riyadh over any questions that came up subsequently. We have the details on the surveys carried at each of the clusters. We do not have the unique identifiers as we made it clear this information was not to be part of the database for ethical reasons to protect the participants and the interviewers."

Questions about the Lancet data and its availability

In "Data Bomb," Munro and Cannon wrote, "The [Lancet study] authors have declined to provide the surveyors' reports and forms that might bolster confidence in their findings … Under pressure from critics, the authors did release a disk of the surveyors' collated data, including tables showing how often the survey teams said they requested to see, and saw, the death certificates. But those tables are suspicious, in part, because they show data heaping." Data heaping is when surveys contain fabricated or inaccurate data that clusters together, or heaps, towards "clean" inputs -- for example, multiple entries of numbers like 10 or 20 instead of a range of "messier" numbers like 13 and 17.

Neil Munro wasn't happy with only having access to collated data. "Collated data is not the same as data," he told me. "It's not even the same as raw data, and it's not even the [survey] forms, et cetera."

Burnham and Roberts responded to these criticisms by pointing out that their Iraqi mortality data was "made available to academic and scientific groups in April 2007 as was planned from the inception of the study." The release announcement stated that, due to "major ethical, as well as personal safety concerns, the data we are making available will have no identifiers below Governorate level."

The release announcement also stated that data would only "be provided to organizations or groups without publicly stated views that would cause doubt about their objectivity." Les Roberts told me that condition was added "as a result of mistakes I made with the 2004 study … I gave the data out to more or less anyone who asked, and two groups included … the neighborhood in Fallujah," which the study authors had excluded from their calculations, due to the area's extremely high mortality rates. "As a result, they came up with an estimate twice as high as ours, and it repeatedly got cited in the press as 'Les Roberts reports more than 200,000 Iraqis have died,' and that just wasn't true," he said. "So, to prevent that from happening again, we thought, if a few academic groups who want to check our analysis and rerun their own models want to look, that would be OK, but we're not just going to pass it out [to anyone]."

There seems to be no question that other researchers have had access to the 2006 Lancet study data. So, Munro and Cannon's criticism is essentially that reporters like them have had limited access. Roberts confirmed that the Lancet study authors treat data requests from nonresearchers differently. "What we wanted was to release [the data] to people that had the statistical modeling experience and a little bit of experience in this field," he explained. When I asked Neil Munro whether he accepted that security concerns kept the Lancet researchers from collecting personal data or releasing noncollated data, he said, "That's a perfectly coherent response. At the same time, others can judge whether it's a sufficient response."

Still, the information that the Lancet study authors gave Munro and Cannon was detailed enough to reveal what the journalists called examples of data heaping. One example involves when death certificates were reported missing. Burnham and Roberts refuted Munro and Cannon's claim that "all 22 missing certificates for violent deaths were inexplicably heaped in the single province of Nineveh." They pointed out that there were three regions in which "survey interviewers either forgot or chose not to ask for death certificates out of concern for their personal safety."

Roberts told me that the pattern of missing death certificates "does not, in any way, suggest a problem with the data … If we went across the United States and could somehow interview people about having lost a loved one, and we identified … deaths that didn't have a death certificate, those would clump." In particular, they would clump in "Amish communities or Indian communities in Alaska where they don't bother with death certificates" and in areas where "no one really worries about death certificates in their little town." In Iraq, areas with fewer death certificates might also indicate where local institutions are not functioning well. Roberts criticized as "deceptive logic" the assertion made in "Data Bomb" that "the odds against such perfection" in patterns of death certificates "are at least 10,000 to 1." He countered, "That's making the assumption that when one house doesn't have a death certificate, that that's completely independent of the next house."

Munro and Cannon's other "data heaping" example concerns the pattern of violent deaths in a particular area. In "Data Bomb," they wrote that in one area, 24 violent deaths were "neatly divided among 18 houses -- 12 houses reported one death, and six houses reported two deaths." Les Roberts told me, "That's what the data is … We could envision lots of means by which houses would essentially have lost one or a couple people." As a theoretical example, he said, "If there was a bombing in a line of men who were queuing up for some reason, you actually would not expect to have more than one or two killed in any house … There are lots of reasons why such patterns can exist."

When I asked Neil Munro what was not present in the collated data that might allay or confirm his concerns, Munro gave the example of D3 Systems, a Virginia-based firm that carries out polling and other research in "difficult environments" around the world. "Locals are hired," Munro said, explaining D3's approach. "They're trained for weeks -- a week or more. They get fired when they violate the rules … because local Iraqis violate the rules. … When they send out people to interview in a town, they send them with a camera, and they say, 'Take a … time-stamped picture of the town and bring it back to show us you were there.' There's no privacy violation there. There's no particular security concern there … They gather the ages of the people they interview. Birth dates, for example. And then they look at those birth dates, and if they see data heaping, they'll call the employee back in to explain himself."

Asked whether their approach was less rigorous than D3's method, Les Roberts said the opposite was true. "We only had physicians as interviewers, and all of them were former students of" Riyadh Lafta, who Roberts called "one of the most famous public health scientists in the entire country." Lafta also accompanied some of the survey teams in the field. "We had a link of accountability far, far stronger than is the norm in polling firms," Roberts told me. "This is more intense supervision than almost ever occurs in surveys of this sort." In addition, all interviewers had "previous survey and community medicine experience," and received two days of training, according to the Lancet study. The survey teams did take some pictures in the field, Roberts told me, but they can't be released, due to security concerns.

Questions about political bias

Perhaps the most frequently repeated "Data Bomb" critiques are the charges of political bias. "Virtually everyone connected with the study has been an outspoken opponent of U.S. actions in Iraq," wrote Munro and Cannon. "The funding came from the Open Society Institute created by [George] Soros, a top Democratic donor, and from three other foundations." Munro and Cannon also reported that Burnham had "admitted" that the Lancet study was timed to appear "before the [November 2006] election."

"At no time did either Roberts or Burnham say that [the] study's release was timed to affect the outcome of the election," stated the Lancet study authors's response. "Roberts indicated that he wanted to promote discussion of the results, and Burnham told Munro specifically that he was anxious that the 2006 study be released well before the election to dispel any notion of trying to influence outcomes."

The Lancet study authors have consistently said that "planning for the second survey began in October 2005 with the intention of completing and releasing the findings in the spring. However, the violence in Iraq was so great that it prohibited the field teams from beginning the survey until late spring." Since some people dismissed their earlier study specifically because it was published a few weeks before the 2004 election, it's difficult to understand why the authors would want their follow-up research to be published near another election.

It's true that the Lancet study authors and Lancet publisher Richard Horton have voiced opposition to the Iraq war. Garfield acknowledged this, telling the National Journal, "You can have an opinion and still do good science." An exasperated Les Roberts asked one critic, "Do people who publish about malaria death need to be neutral about malaria?"

It's not too surprising that public health researchers would have negative attitudes about war, especially one opposed by the majority of their fellow U.S. or British citizens. Still, it's appropriate to take the authors's views into consideration when evaluating their work. The important question is whether their views compromised their work. As this article suggests, the Lancet study has held up well under intense scrutiny. Moreover, applying Munro's "objectivity" standard would call his own article into question, as he advocated for the invasion of Iraq back in 2001. (For the record, I oppose the Iraq war. I also feel that its negative impact on Iraq, the United States and elsewhere is more than apparent, whether 80,000 or one million Iraqis have died.)

The question of funding is more serious. Numerous analyses have found that funding sources do impact research outcomes. For example, research funded by a pharmaceutical company is more likely to produce results favorable to its drugs. There are three major ways in which funding sources may skew research results: Funders may only support research that's structured to maximize the likelihood of obtaining desired results, funding may consciously or unconsciously change researchers's protocols or analyses, or funders may insist that only desired results be published. Did any of these dynamics influence the Lancet study?

According to Gilbert and Burnham, "the fact that some … financial support in 2006 came from the Open Society Institute had no effect," because "the researchers knew nothing of funding origins." Richard Garfield seconded their account. "I had pressed the Lancet team … about who are the people at MIT, and where does their money come from," he told me.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology accepted four grants for the Lancet research: $46,000 from the Open Society Institute; $5,000 from Samuel Rubin Foundation, a liberal funder; and two small grants from unnamed sources. MIT's John Tirman, who oversaw the funding, explained that "more than six months after the [Lancet] survey was commissioned, the Open Society Institute … provided a grant to support public education efforts on the issue. We used that to pay for some travel for lectures, a website, and so on."

The Lancet study authors have consistently stated that they were in touch only with MIT and were not aware of the funding sources. "They said they didn't know" about the Open Society Institute funding, "and I think that's right," Garfield told me. "But it doesn't matter. The research is either right or it's wrong."

If the funders were not in touch with the Lancet researchers and the researchers didn't know the identity of the funders, then two of the possible ways in which funding can bias science could not have been factors. It is possible that the Open Society Institute decided to fund the Lancet 2006 study because the earlier study's results bolstered criticism of the Iraq war. However, this could not have impacted the Lancet researchers' protocols or analyses, since they weren't aware of the funding source. Lastly, the Open Society Institute funding could have skewed the public debate on Iraq if the Lancet study would not have been done, in the absence of the funding. Tirman's statement that the funding was provided after the study had been commissioned negates this possibility.

Overall, few of the many charges made in the National Journal article "Data Bomb" stick convincingly upon further examination. That is, unless you assume that the Lancet study authors and their colleagues have consistently lied without leaving a paper trail to the contrary. You would also have to assume that the independent health researchers and statisticians who have reviewed the study -- including the chief scientific adviser to the British Defense Ministry -- are either in on the plot, or are too naive or incompetent to notice major problems.

That doesn't mean that the Lancet study is without flaws. It's curious that Munro and Cannon didn't mention the errors that the Lancet study authors themselves have acknowledged. In response to critiques from fellow researchers, the authors published an addendum in which they admitted that one graph in their study -- though labeled accurately -- was "confusing," since it "mixe[d] rates and counts" of Iraqi deaths. They also acknowledged that they had mislabeled U.S. Defense Department numbers of Iraqi casualties, which includes both injuries and deaths, as Iraqi deaths.

Why didn't Munro and Cannon mention these errors in "Data Bomb"? Neil Munro told me that "we ignored many criticisms of the 2006 Lancet paper so we could focus on the core scientific issues." Perhaps he and Cannon considered the acknowledged errors to be minor details, but the fact that they were identified and corrected suggests that the Lancet study authors are more diligent and the scientific debate more robust than "Data Bomb" portrayed.

Six-figure monte

The other impetus for renewed criticism of the 2006 Lancet study was "Violence-Related Mortality in Iraq from 2002 to 2006," a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month. The paper, which was co-authored by the Iraqi Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO), estimated that 151,000 Iraqis have died due to violence since March 2003.

The WHO paper didn't receive lots of attention, but the coverage it received was positive. Some news stories presented the WHO paper as yet another reason to discount the Lancet study. The Associated Press referred to the WHO paper as "the best effort yet to count [Iraqi] deaths," and noted that its estimate was "far lower than the 600,000 deaths reported in an earlier study." The New York Times contrasted the Iraqi death estimates in the WHO and Lancet studies, adding that the Lancet study had "come under criticism for its methodology." NPR described the WHO paper's projection as "about one-fourth of the number of deaths estimated in an earlier controversial study."

A major reason why the WHO paper was seen as more authoritative is that its survey teams interviewed more people: 9,345 households, compared to 1,849 households in the Lancet study. Interviewing more households reduces the risk that deaths are over- or under-represented in the data, since violent deaths tend to be concentrated in certain areas, instead of being spread out evenly across the country. But, as Tim Lambert pointed out, "the larger sample size just reduces the sampling error," along with narrowing the confidence interval, or range of other possible "correct" answers suggested by the data. Burnham has explained that the sample size used for the Lancet study "is nearly three times larger than the average U.S. political survey that reports a margin of error of +/- 3 percent."

In addition, the interviews that the WHO paper is based on may have been less representative of conditions across Iraq than those conducted for the Lancet study. The WHO survey teams were not able to visit more than 10 percent of their planned interview areas, due to violence. To adjust for not having data from these high-mortality areas, the WHO paper relied on ratios derived from Iraq Body Count data. However, Iraq Body Count only includes Iraqi deaths that have been reported by two or more news sources, compiling a minimum number of confirmed civilian deaths due to violence. By using Iraq Body Count numbers to fill in their missing data points, the WHO paper authors assumed that the likelihood of a violent death being reported is equal across different regions of Iraq, which seems unlikely.

Other factors undermine the "bigger is better" argument. One is that the interviews for the WHO paper were conducted months later than those for the Lancet study. The delay made the WHO teams more likely to miss deaths due to household movement or disintegration prior to the survey, and more likely to miss or miscategorize deaths since interviewees were being asked about more distant events. In addition, the WHO survey was much longer than the one used in the Lancet study. Longer surveys tend to result in fewer deaths being reported. A follow-up to a long survey on living conditions in Iraq "revealed twice as many child deaths when researchers revisited the same households asking just about deaths in children," according to the Lancet study authors. Lastly, the WHO survey teams did not ask for death certificates, as the Lancet teams did.

These caveats don't mean that the WHO paper is inferior to the Lancet study -- just that it's difficult to compare them directly. That's especially true since the WHO paper didn't give a number for total deaths. Its 151,000 figure is for violent deaths only. The Lancet study's 650,000 figure represents invasion-related violent and nonviolent deaths. Since decisions about what is a violent and what is a nonviolent cause of death may vary between studies, the most accurate comparison would be between the number of total deaths.

In an accompanying document, the authors of the WHO paper explained that "further analysis would be needed to calculate an estimate of the number of [total] deaths and to assess how large the mortality increase due to nonviolent causes is, after taking into account that reporting of deaths longer ago is less complete." However, based on the rates of violent and total deaths given in the WHO paper, a rough estimate of around 400,000 total deaths predicted by the WHO data can be made. (Tim Lambert was kind enough to walk me through the calculation, which predicts just over 433,000 Iraqi deaths from violent and nonviolent causes.)

"There's a consistent picture if you take into account the limitations of the different studies," Richard Garfield told me. "Everyone in their right minds realizes that there are six figures' worth of excess deaths." As Garfield pointed out to the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Once you've got six figures, a higher six figures and a lower six figures are both describing an extraordinary level of civilian mortality, one of the highest in the world."

The pre- and post-invasion death rates are also similar between the WHO and Lancet studies, according to Les Roberts. "I can't ever remember two studies having such similar results and having it being painted as so controversial," he told NPR. "We found a death rate, after the invasion, 2.4 times higher. That is, mortality a little more than doubled. And this new survey found … a death rate twice as high after [the invasion] … The huge contrast between these two studies is that we think virtually all of that increase was from violence, and they believe that only a third in the increase in mortality was from violence."

Why Do You Ask?

The WHO and Lancet studies are just two of many Iraqi casualty estimates, though their having used the "cluster sampling" approach preferred in volatile regions, and having gone through the peer review process, make them particularly compelling. The same week that the WHO paper was published, the British polling firm ORB released a revised estimate of 1.03 million Iraqi deaths from all causes, "as a result of the conflict," from March 2003 to August 2007. Iraq Body Count, which relies on media sources as described above, reported up to 89,000 Iraqi civilian deaths due to violence, from March 2003 to late February 2008.

While Les Roberts cautioned that he does not have the information needed to evaluate the ORB poll, he noted its similarity to other estimates. "There was a BBC poll that was done at the end of four years of occupation," he told me. "In that poll, 17 percent of households said someone in their household had been killed or injured from the violence of the war." The ORB poll covered an additional six months and found that 20 percent of Iraqi households reported at least one death. Since "every data set … suggests more people have been killed in this war than injured," Roberts feels that the BBC and ORB polls are "quite consistent." He added that attempts to update the 2006 Lancet data, which are not scientific and make major assumptions, have calculated that there may have been "a million [total Iraqi] deaths by August of 2007."

In contrast, Richard Garfield is skeptical of the ORB poll. "I wouldn't be surprised if there's an upward bias there," he told me. He's also critical of Iraq Body Count (IBC). "Every death is a true death, but there are an enormous number of deaths that don't go into it," he said, comparing IBC's approach to rigorously documenting the tip of an iceberg. Even though IBC clearly states that it doesn't count many civilian deaths, its numbers are often reported as total Iraqi casualties. That makes the project "misleading," in Garfield's eyes. Reporters and government officials think, "The numbers are there, they're convenient and they're low, so we can trust it," he said. (For their part, IBC authored a scathing attack of the 2006 Lancet study.)

Sarah Sewall, the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, has seen this dynamic firsthand. "I remember very well, a couple different conferences with military officials where everyone was questioning the method and the motive of the IBC's approach," she told NPR. "And it wasn't until the first Lancet survey came out everyone said, 'Oh, well, goodness, the Iraq Body Count is so much more reliable.'"

Underlying the various estimates of Iraqi casualties are not only different research approaches and limitations but different assumptions of which deaths should be counted and why. Is it important to include Iraqi deaths from nonviolent causes? Should only Iraqi civilian deaths be monitored? Who should collect the data, and how should it be used?

"The only important reason to do this is to reduce casualties," Garfield told me. On that count, the various studies of Iraqi mortality paint a more tragic picture than many people realize. "What's been lost in the political noise is a consistent finding … of a small to moderate rise in the nonviolent, regular causes of death," Garfield explained. "It's very worrisome. It means that conditions of life and medical care are not improving or not improving very much … Iraqi hospitals were a very big mess before, so it shouldn't have been hard to have a [positive] impact."

Everyone -- war opponents and supporters alike -- presumably wants the United States to have a more positive impact on the lives of Iraqis. The data coming out of Iraq should help us figure out how to do that, if we examine it carefully and critically.

Better media coverage would certainly help, but Les Roberts isn't very optimistic on that count. Roberts contrasted the coverage that CNN and ABC gave his Congo mortality surveys with the difficulty he and others have had even responding to charges made against their Iraq work. Major newspapers declined to publish a response to what Roberts called a "very deceptive" October 2006 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Steven Moore, who served as Paul Bremer's pollster in Iraq. "When you look at the attacks that have been made on ORB and the attacks that have been made on us as a result of putting this information out, suddenly you realize why CNN and the Washington Post don't want to be the entity saying that more than twice as many people have died in Iraq as have died in Darfur," Roberts told me. "That's just not going to win you many friends."

Of course, U.S. policy towards Iraq isn't winning many friends, either. Eventually, that policy will change and a consensus on how many Iraqis died due to the invasion will emerge. That number will be important not for its inevitable use in domestic political debates, but for its use in guiding reconstruction and medical aid to Iraq and in building a more humane U.S. foreign policy.

Announcing the 2007 Falsie Awards for the Biggest Fraudsters in the Media

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the year that the Falsies Awards have truly arrived!

Here at the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), we've dearly treasured our Falsies since we gave the first awards out in 2004. After 12 months of reporting on the cynical, manipulative and just plain anti-democratic pollution of our information environment, we love adding an extra dash of humor to our work. But this year's Falsies Awards are extra super special.

Why, you ask? Well, more people responded to our Falsies Awards survey than ever before. Thanks to the more than 1,400 people who took part! Our Falsies are your Falsies, too.

In addition, this year marks the first time there was an organized campaign in favor of one of our Falsies Awards nominees. To find out who was stuffing our Falsies survey, read on.

As always, Falsies Awards winners must stop by CMD's office in Madison, Wisconsin, to collect their prizes. This year's winners will receive a pair of Groucho Marx glasses, to obscure your real identity; the Online Deception Kit, comprised of a sock, buttons and thread, to make your own puppet; and a five-gallon bucket of Mr. Flack's Special Greenwash Paint (warning: may not look green upon closer examination)!

With so many stellar nominees and few clear trends in the survey results, deciding on this year's winners was no easy task. Our panel of judges awarded the coveted Gold Falsie to two belligerent groups. The Silver and Bronze Falsies recognize spinners of environmental and health issues, respectively. Dishonorable mentions go to drug pushers, troop users and reporter wanna-be's. And thanks to the survey participants for nominating many worthy recipients for our Readers' Choice and Win Against Spin Awards!

Draw up your chair and prepare to be both amused and dismayed. The winners of the 2007 Falsies Awards are ...

Golden Falsie: "War More Years" and "For More Wars"

The only thing worse than failing to end a long, bloody and increasingly unpopular war might be trying to start a new one. All we are saying is that the joint winners of this year's Gold Falsie should give peace a chance.


Half of this year's Gold Falsie goes to the leadership of the U.S. Democratic Party. By all accounts, growing opposition to the Iraq war was a major factor in the Democrats' November 2006 election victories, which gave them control of both houses of Congress. What have they done with that mandate? Not much. The tension between the public's anti-war sentiment and the Democrats' political wrangling came to a head in early 2007, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promoted a "compromise" war funding bill with no specific timetables, no binding measures and no chance of becoming law. As CMD's John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton wrote at the time, a stronger Iraq amendment by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was deep-sixed by the Democratic leadership and ignored by the Democrat-aligned online advocacy group MoveOn.

The Iraq war funding triangulation continues today. In early December, the Wall Street Journal reported that Democratic leaders, in order to avoid being seen either as capitulating to Bush on Iraq or as under-funding the military, "are looking at the option of advancing more money for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, "responsible" war critics are being encouraged to wait for General David Petraeus's spring 2008 report, much as they were previously for Petraeus's September 2007 report. It reminds us of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's infamous, never-ending six month timeframe for evaluating progress in Iraq.

No wonder that Congress's approval ratings have sunk even lower than President Bush's, or that Speaker Pelosi felt compelled to launch a PR campaign this autumn, touting the Democratic Congress's accomplishments. At least now they can say they've won an award!

The other cup of the Gold Falsie goes to Freedom's Watch, an influential Republican-associated lobbying group that advocates "peace through strength," as described by its spokesman, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. In August 2007, the group launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign encouraging continued support for the "troop surge" in Iraq. The Freedom's Watch print and television ads alleged a connection between Iraq and 9/11, without directly claiming that Iraq was responsible for the terrorist attacks -- the same approach used by the Bush administration in the lead up to the March 2003 invasion.



More recently, Freedom's Watch has been pushing for war with Iran. In September 2007, the group's president Bradley Blakeman (a former assistant to President Bush) ominously stated, "If Hitler's warnings were heeded when he wrote Mein Kampf he could have been stopped." Just before Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's U.S. visit, Freedom's Watch ran a full-page New York Times ad that called him a "terrorist." In October, the group organized a forum with several American Enterprise Institute fellows, designed to prove that Iran poses a significant security threat to the United States. The following month, news of a focus group apparently funded by Freedom's Watch surfaced. "The basis of the whole thing was, 'we're going to go into Iran and what do we have to do to get you guys to go along with it,'" according to one participant.

In early December, when U.S. intelligence agencies reported that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program more than four years ago, Freedom's Watch ignored the news for several days. Finally, one of their blog posts approvingly pointed to an editorial which, in their words, argued that the intelligence report showed "we must continue to pressure Iran on their weapons program." That's right -- the weapons program that doesn't exist. Why let reality get in the way of well-funded war mongering? With that chutzpah, FreedomWatch truly deserves the most false of Falsies!


Silver Falsie: "Deleting Heating"

Speaking of alternate realities, this year's Silver Falsie goes to determined global warming skeptics who, when faced with evidence of climate change, simply remove it. Exhibit A is Philip A. Cooney, who headed the White House Council on Environmental Quality in between lobbying gigs for the American Petroleum Institute and Exxon Mobil. In March 2007, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released documents detailing "hundreds of instances" where Cooney had edited government reports to downplay the human contribution to and impacts of global warming. Cooney has no scientific credentials.


Exhibit B is the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), whose "heavy-handed" editing "eviscerated" the October 2007 Congressional testimony of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's director on the likely health impacts of global warming. Her original testimony described "how many people might be adversely affected because of increased warming and the scientific basis for some of the CDC's analysis on what kinds of diseases might be spread in a warmer climate and rising sea levels." The OMB edits removed these details, cutting her testimony to less than half of its original length.

Exhibit C is the U.S. negotiators for the global warming statement released by the Group of Eight (G-8) industrial countries at their June 2007 summit. Draft documents revealed that the U.S. pressured other G-8 countries to remove commitments to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as an assessment that "tackling climate change is an imperative, not a choice."

These climate change cancelers have helped stymie attempts to address global warming for so long that hundreds of the world's most prestigious climate scientists recently issued an impassioned cry for action. Of course, the skeptics would not be so effective were it not for a larger network that funds, develops and promotes their brand of Flat Earth-ism: companies like Exxon Mobil; think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Enterprise Institute and Cato Institute (whose Jerry Taylor claims that "scientists are in no position to intelligently guide public policy on climate change"); and celebrities like Bjorn Lomborg and Czech president Vaclav Klaus. Take a bow, everyone!



Awarding a Falsie to groups spinning breastfeeding issues seems ... well, especially appropriate. Apparently the folks at Ban the Bags, a campaign against formula company marketing in maternity hospitals, agree. They posted a call for their members to participate in our Falsies Awards survey, and votes for the formula industry came pouring in. Is this spinning a survey on spin? Our judges were divided on that question, but ultimately decided to discount survey responses where people only voted on the formula industry nominee.

There's no question that the formula industry, represented by the International Formula Council (IFC), deserves the Bronze Falsie. The September / October issue of Mothering Magazine reported on "stealth" websites that "appear to be grassroots advocacy sites, but are actually mouthpieces for the formula industry." They include MomsFeedingFreedom.com, an IFC website that opposes restrictions on formula marketing in hospitals as attacks on "women's access to information to make a legitimate choice."


Bronze Falsie: "Impeding Breastfeeding"


In August 2007, the Washington Post reported on an IFC lobbying campaign that succeeded in getting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to pull ads that dramatically illustrated the increased health risks faced by babies who do not breastfeed. The IFC portrayed the ads as "scaring expectant mothers into breast-feeding," and hired a former Republican National Committee chair and former Food and Drug Administration official to lobby HHS. It probably didn't hurt that most formula companies are "divisions of large pharmaceutical companies that are among the most generous campaign donors in the nation."

For portraying accurate health information as alarmism and intrusive marketing campaigns as "freedom" -- not to mention helping to keep U.S. breastfeeding rates well below those of European countries -- this Falsie's for you, IFC!



The level of deception throughout 2007 simply can't be adequately conveyed by our top Falsies Awards recipients. So we hope that you have some indignation left for the following winners of Dishonorable Mentions:

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How Reporters Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Front Groups

"We just find it maddening that Hill & Knowlton, which has an $8 million account with the nuclear industry, should have such an easy time working the press," concluded the Columbia Journalism Review in an editorial in its July / August 2006 issue.


The magazine was rightly bemoaning the tendency of news outlets to present former Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore and former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman as environmentalists who support nuclear power, without noting that both are paid spokespeople for a group bankrolled by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). NEI represents nuclear power plant operators, plant designers, fuel suppliers and other sectors of the nuclear power industry. Hill & Knowlton is NEI's public relations firm, though it's not the only firm working to build support for nuclear power.


Thanks in part to an ongoing, multifaceted PR push -- along with very real concerns about energy prices, rising energy demand, aging infrastructure, sustainability and global warming -- nuclear power is attracting serious attention from reporters and policymakers alike. The question is whether a vital public debate over energy choices is being skewed by deep-pocketed interests with a dog in the fight.


The dangers of such distortions are especially acute at the state and local levels. That's where efforts to extend the licenses of existing nuclear power plants, to maintain or expand nuclear waste storage facilities, and to site new proposed nuclear power plants, are made or broken. And that's where pro-nuclear campaigners appear to be focusing, adopting the mantle and tactics of community groups while steadfastly refusing to provide details on their operations.




Persistence Pays Off

All manner of businesses promote themselves every day, but the nuclear power industry's need for good PR is tremendous. No new nuclear plants have been ordered in the United States since 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island meltdown. The Yucca Mountain national repository for nuclear waste -- originally scheduled to open in 1998 -- is now slated to begin accepting waste in March 2017. Experienced nuclear engineers are becoming scarce; nearly 30 percent of the industry's workforce "will be eligible to retire within five years," the Scripps Howard News Service reported in April 2006. And even with what one Forbes columnist described as "all this corporate welfare," potential "investors remain wary of construction risks" for new nuclear power plants, explained an energy sector analyst.


The industry's future is so precarious that Exelon Nuclear's head of project development warned attendees of the Electric Power 2005 conference, "Inaction is synonymous with being phased out." That's why years of effort -- not to mention millions of dollars -- have been invested in nuclear power's PR rebirth as "clean, green and safe."


The nuclear power industry has been promoting itself as part of the solution to global warming for a decade. Industry representatives appeared en masse at a 1998 climate change conference in Buenos Aires, according to environmental consultant Alan Tate. "They inundated the international negotiators, including with what appeared to be a number of front groups like Students for Nuclear Power," he told reporter Liz Minchin. By 2005, nuclear industry spokespeople were "giving much more polished performances at climate meetings and negotiations."

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News Fakers Respond

Hours after the Center for Media and Democracy released our study on television stations' widespread and undisclosed use of corporate video news releases (VNRs), a major organization of broadcast news executives issued its response.

"The Radio-Television News Directors Association strongly urges station management to review and strengthen their policies requiring complete disclosure of any outside material used in news programming," read the statement. RTNDA went on to caution that decisions involving "when and how to identify sources must remain far removed from government involvement or supervision."

Unfortunately, RTNDA's statement conflates "sources" with broadcast material funded by and produced for outside parties. It also conveniently ignores that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, under its authority to regulate broadcasters' use of the public airwaves, already has disclosure requirements (PDF) on the books. But RTNDA's stance does point to an important, underlying issue: how to ensure both news audiences' right to know "who seeks to influence them" and the editorial freedom of newsrooms.

The Society of Professional Journalists also responded to our study, strongly condemning TV stations' "irresponsible" and "misleading" use of VNRs. Their statement, similar to RTNDA's, "urges broadcast companies to set their own house in order by using extreme caution and full disclosure when airing VNRs." However, such admonitions fail to take into consideration the continuing confusion over video feeds' origins, the history of TV stations' failure to disclose VNRs, the harsh realities of resource-strapped TV newsrooms and the embarrassment factor that likely makes newsrooms reluctant to identify VNRs as such.

Is it reasonable, within the context of the current system, to expect TV stations to meet the disclosure standards that we all agree on -- and that the FCC is charged to uphold? After hearing the explanations and delving into the records of many of the TV stations that we documented airing fake news, I would say no.

TV News: A mistake-prone profession

By far, the most common response to our study from TV stations -- besides "no comment" -- was that mistakes or confusion led to their airing VNRs without disclosure. John Rossi, the general manager of Oklahoma City's KOKH-25, told me that his station made "an honest mistake" when it aired six of the VNRs that we tracked. "There was no intention to mislead the viewers," he stressed.

KOKH uses Pathfire, a digital video system that delivers real news feeds, VNRs and advertisements to many TV stations across the country. Rossi said that KOKH staff made "an assumption that it was not a VNR" if the video in question appeared anywhere else besides Pathfire's VNR section. He explained that Pathfire gives a "brief pop-up" notification if a video is a VNR, but that KOKH staff repeatedly missed that message as they were "going in to preview the text of the story."

Pathfire's website claims that the system provides VNRs "on the same platform as network news content, but in a clearly differentiated area so users enjoy all of the benefits of easy access with no potential source confusion." Rossi assured me that KOKH staff have now been directed to pay close attention to the Pathfire notifications. In the future, "if we air a VNR, we will disclose it," he promised.

Other TV stations' explanations were similar, if more vague. The news director at Los Angeles' KABC-7 told the Los Angeles Daily News, "ABC7 Eyewitness News has a policy against using VNRs in their entirety or even using excerpts without appropriate attribution and original reporting to confirm or contradict the claims. Nonetheless, a VNR about an allergy test called Immunocap did somehow slip through the cracks last September."

The news director at New York's WCBS-2 explained in an email to a viewer that her station aired a health supplement company's VNR because "there was a misidentification of the videotape in question that led our news writer and news managers to believe they were working from material supplied by another CBS affiliate. In the hectic atmosphere of our newsroom that day -- the day that the Antrax [sic] was discovered in a Brooklyn warehouse -- our internal safeguards failed. We have since examined our internal procedures and taken steps to make sure this does not happen again."

A spokesperson for San Francisco's KPIX-5 told the SF Weekly that their airing of a Pfizer VNR "was clearly a mistake and a violation of our own policy and a violation of FCC rules." KPIX's vice president of news emailed in response to a viewer complaint, "A new reporter on our staff failed to attribute the source of this video."

In Syracuse, N.Y., the news director at WSYR-9 admitted, "A mistake was made here." The vice president for news at WBFS-33 in Miami, Fla., told a National Public Radio reporter that "disclosure did appear -- briefly -- in the Towers Perrin video release but escaped a producer's eye."

The news director at Ohio News Network begrudgingly admitted a mistake, after we documented the cable station airing a VNR about modular car dashboards. "It is worth noting that the information did air on a lifestyle, non-news portion of a program called Technology Tuesday," he told the Columbus Dispatch. "But, again, we should have been employing proper disclosure on screen."

The news director at WCPO-9 in Cincinnati, Ohio, seemed not to understand that we found his station airing two VNRs without any on screen or verbal disclosure. He emailed a concerned viewer that WCPO is "conducting an in-house review" and "creating new written rules to avoid any sense of a failure to disclose." He added, "I feel we have been obvious in our writing, but it's clear the Center for Media and Democracy disagrees. Is there some way we can be even more obvious in our disclosure? I'm sure there is, and that's what we are working on for the future."

Frequent news fakers

These lapses might be easier to accept if so many TV stations weren't repeat offenders.

Of the 77 TV stations named in our study, we documented 14 airing two or more fake news segments. The New York Times previously reported that two other stations in our study, WCIA-3 in Champaign, Ill., and WHBQ-13 in Memphis, Tenn., had aired VNRs from U.S. government agencies. And, over the past few weeks, I've uncovered more evidence of prior fake news usage.

Ed Kral, the news director at WSJV-28 in South Bend, Ind., initially contacted the Center for Media and Democracy to say that his station's use of a General Motors VNR was an accident. But according to a Citigroup website, WSJV aired a VNR promoting the company's "Do Something Financial Education Challenge" in April 2005 (as did Los Angeles' KCBS-2). When I called Kral back, he told me, "I have been instructed by corporate not to talk to you people."

WBRZ-2 in Baton Rouge, La., also aired one of the VNRs we tracked, about the "ethanol boom." WBRZ's news director told a local newspaper that station policy is to "clearly identify the source of the footage, verbally and with an on-air graphic." But that didn't happen with the ethanol VNR -- or when WBRZ aired the infamous Medicare VNR featuring reporter-turned-flack Karen Ryan. On Jan. 23, 2004, a WBRZ anchor introduced that VNR -- which was later found to be covert propaganda -- by saying:

In December, President Bush signed into law the first ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details.

Other TV stations named in our study had previously aired segments "reported" by Karen Ryan. KMAX-31 in Sacramento aired a corporate VNR that Ryan did on frequent flier programs, while Pittsburgh's WPGH-53 aired another Ryan VNR in August 2003, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (In response to our study, WPGH's former news manager told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "These things are getting on the air everywhere because they're not being labeled as for-profit stories. If they're cleverly worded, you don't know they are for a particular product.")

In October 2004, CJR Daily reported that WLFL-22 in Raleigh, N.C., had aired a Karen Ryan VNR "that sang the praises of the No Child Left Behind Act." Philadelphia's WPVI-6 broadcast a different Education Department VNR, sans Ryan, again according to CJR Daily. (We documented WLFL and WPVI both airing the same VNR, which was jointly funded by Panasonic, Namco and Techno Source, in November 2005.) Back in April 1995, WPVI aired a VNR funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as did Los Angeles' KTLA-5 and WWTV-9 in Tustin, Mich., according to the foundation's website.

In 2004, reporter Allen Salkin identified several TV stations that "ran a video news release produced by the dairy industry about how eating cheese and butter can help people lose weight." His list includes KTXL-40 in Sacramento; we found KTXL airing an American Dental Association VNR. (In a statement, KTXL's news director said the ADA segment "appeared on the daily Fox network news feed. Fox says it does not rely on VNR company interviews for its news packages, but the network did acknowledge using some video of the dental technology from the VNR.")

But it may be Detroit's WJBK-2 that holds the dubious distinction of having the longest documented history of VNR usage. We found WJBK airing two VNRs in early 2006 -- one promoting Cadillac cars and the other touting a "porn-free" search engine. Back in October 2000, the station aired a VNR from Dephi Automotive Systems that "detailed developments in automotive electronics," according to a PR firm's website.

Nearly a decade earlier, in 1991, WJBK aired portions of a VNR that promoted Upjohn's anti-anxiety drug, Xanax. As Steven Taylor and Morton Mintz reported in The Nation, a WJBK anchor claimed, "Doctors say there seem to be few side effects to the drug." "Actually," wrote Taylor and Mintz, "in some cases Xanax does have serious adverse effects, such as blurred vision, sexual dysfunction, confusion, dizziness, impaired attention and addiction."

What WJBK lacks in journalistic scruples, it might make up for in bluntness. In response to our inquiries about the station's disclosure policies, WJBK's Al Johnson emailed, "Yes we use SMTs (satellite media tours, which are sponsored, canned "interviews") and to a lesser degree VNR's. No, we never disclose sources." Detroit viewers -- you've been warned.

Now, the VNRs described above were aired by TV stations named in our study, but there's no evidence that these stations are any worse -- or any better -- than the hundreds of other stations in the United States. Indeed, until full disclosure is practiced in deed as well as on paper, we won't know how many fake news hounds roam among us.

If you want to know whether your local stations air VNRs, urge the FCC to enforce its disclosure requirements. You can also do your own research; many of the above examples were found with simple Internet searches for "video news release" and the station's name. Please add whatever you're able to document to our collaborative online encyclopedia, SourceWatch, which has a growing section on "Fake News Broadcasters."

A few good eggs

Of the 77 TV stations named in our study, two did have more constructive responses.

The news director at WNEP-16 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., explained that their airing a health supplement company's VNR in February 2006 was "an honest mistake. Our reporter thought the material was from the New England Journal of Medicine." What made WNEP's response remarkable was the following:

We have a duty to our viewers to present the news accurately and fairly, and to properly attribute the sources of all the materials that go into our reports. We take that responsibility very seriously, and we recognize our error. We sincerely apologize to our viewers.

The only thing the WNEP statement lacked was an explanation of how they will avoid similar mistakes in the future. Los Angeles' KCBS-2 did that and more.

"We are making an immediate change in our policy on VNRs and HANDOUT VIDEOTAPE," read a memo circulated to KCBS and KCAL-9 news staff, the week after our study was published. "We will no longer use material from Video News Releases which come to us via CBS Newspath, CNN Newsource, APTN or any other service or Digital Media Gateway in anything we produce." The memo clarified that "handout video" may still be used, but "the source of this video will be identified in both chyron (an on-screen identifier) (to be displayed over every second of the video) and in copy read by the anchor, WITH NO EXCEPTION."

Perhaps the most hopeful reaction to our study came not from a TV station, but from FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. As he explained on the Pacifica News show Democracy Now!, "Clearly, [VNRs] are unethical when they are not being disclosed to the public. But further, there's a federal law that requires that the public be informed about the source of who is behind what goes on broadcast media."

As noted above, some organizations are concerned that mandating disclosure of VNRs would diminish TV newsrooms' editorial freedom. In addition to ignoring laws already on the books, that stance helps maintain a rotten status quo -- ineffective codes of conduct, confused newsroom staff, and little or no respect for the viewers' right to know "who seeks to influence them." Not only that, but it sets the stage for the further blending of news, public relations and advertising already being pioneered by broadcast PR firms.

Kevin Foley of the firm KEF Media Associates wrote in the April 2006 issue of O'Dwyer's PR Report, "The once sacrosanct wall between editorial and advertising in TV newsrooms has all but crumbled to dust. Local TV news is no longer in the business of shedding light on our social ills. It's in the business of keeping the viewer's hand off the remote, so virtually anything goes as long as it feeds the beast with ad revenue."

He's not sounding a call for concerned citizens to hold their news media accountable. He's urging fellow PR executives to "adapt and, hopefully, thrive" in a new media landscape. And they will do just that, to the great benefit of their clients -- unless and until we take the threat of fake news seriously.

A Fake End to Fake News

"Myself and others felt violated by the first bill," said Doug Simon, the founder, president and CEO of D S Simon Productions, a major producer of the faux television news reports known as video news releases (VNRs).

Simon was referring to the Truth in Broadcasting Act (S 967). In its original incarnation, this bill would have required a "conspicuous" disclosure to accompany any government-produced or -funded prepackaged VNR or the radio equivalent, an audio news release (ANR).

For VNRs, the Act rightly mandated "continuous" on-screen notification of the material's source, such as the words "Produced by the U.S. Government." Moreover, the Act made it illegal to remove the disclosure.

That Act was considered by the Senate Commerce Committee on October 20. What the committee passed, however, was significantly different. Even the name had changed, to the "Prepackaged News Story Announcement Act."

And now, Doug Simon likes it.

"Clearly when they initially brought the legislation, they didn't have a full understanding of our industry," Simon told O'Dwyer's PR Daily. Broadcasting & Cable reported that he was "pleased" by the changes.

Barbara Cochran, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, had joined Simon in testifying against the original Act, back in May. Considering the revised measure, she remarked, "Our arguments seemed to be persuasive."

What changes were made and why do they have "industry officials who have resisted the labeling" now "hailing the bill as a victory," as TV Week wrote?

First, the revised Act drops the continuous on-screen notification requirement for VNRs. Second, it calls for "clear notification within the text or audio of the prepackaged news story," without specifying the minimum requirements for audience disclosure. Most troubling, it allows that disclosure to be removed altogether, following rules that the Act requires the Federal Communications Commission to develop.

According to to TV Week, Cochran summarized the effect of these changes as: "The bill clears the way for TV news operations to continue using snippets of government-produced VNRs for [video footage] in their own stories, as they do currently, leaving the issue of how to identify the material up to station news personnel." The problem is that nondisclosure -- that's covert propaganda -- is currently the norm.

Much of the industry's opposition to the original Act was presented in terms of newsroom independence. "Let's not limit the rights of stations," Simon urged. But what about the right of viewers or listeners to know the source of the material those newsrooms broadcast? Is disclosure less important when a report on something as controversial as war in Iraq or Afghanistan or reconstruction in the Gulf states post-Katrina contains 75 percent government-supplied footage? What about if it's 50 percent?

There's one more potential problem, and it could be a big one. The TV Week story claimed, "The approved bill also makes clear that the labeling requirements apply only when broadcasters and cable TV operators opt to air 'prepackaged news stories' in their entirety."

Presumably, they're referring to the Act's definition of a "prepackaged news story" as a "complete, ready-to-use audio or video news segment" (emphasis added). That's the same language as in the original measure. But whether that means there are absolutely no disclosure requirements if anything less than a full VNR or ANR package is broadcast is unclear, at least to me.

If TV Week's right, though, the revised Act has no teeth, nails or protection for news audiences. For resource-strapped newsrooms, avoiding admitting that the report on the government you just broadcast actually came from the government would be as simple as shaving off a single sound bite.

But even with all these caveats, the fact that the revised Act did make it out of the Senate Commerce Committee is a step, however small, in the right direction. The legislative process is far from over, and the Act's language can be strengthened as easily as it was weakened -- if concerned citizens get involved.

According to observers of the committee meeting, the Act's main sponsors, Senators Lautenberg and Kerry, "tried to make it much stronger," but did not have the support of their colleagues. That can change if enough U.S. residents call or write their two Senators and Representative, to demand clear, conspicuous disclosure accompanying all video or audio footage coming from the government. In the case of VNRs, that must be a continuous, on-screen notification. For ANRs, that must be an announcement, prior to and/or following the provided audio.

The fight is far from over -- in fact, it just got more important. Get active and stay tuned.

Fake News Is Hazardous to Your Health

Anyone who's ever looked at a package of cigarettes in the United States since 1965 is familiar with the Surgeon General's warning labels.

The tobacco industry did not want their product being labeled with, "Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy." However, Congress determined that the public interest was best served by ensuring that everyone purchasing cigarettes knew of their ill effects. Providing this information didn't end smoking (today, 22 percent of U.S. adults use cigarettes), but it helped balance years of Big Tobacco's deceptive PR by simply presenting the facts in an appropriate, immediate and universal way.

Congress is now engaged in a similar debate about labeling "fake news." On May 12, public relations and broadcasting industry representatives testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the Truth in Broadcasting Act (S 967). Their remarks were reminiscent of how the tobacco industry responded to the threat of cigarette labeling four decades ago.

The importance of this issue is painfully apparent to anyone familiar with the Armstrong Williams scandal and other cases of "pundit payola." Fake news is also partly responsible for numerous instances of media deception related to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The current debate centers on a particular type of fake news -- prepackaged segments, called audio news releases (ANRs) when produced for radio, and video news releases (VNRs) when produced for television. Government agencies, corporations, industry groups and other large organizations have routinely used ANRs and VNRs since at least the 1980s; some claim VNRs date back to World War II-era newsreels. More recently, media consolidation and shrinking newsroom resources have resulted in broadcasters' increased reliance on such provided materials. Mounting concerns led the Government Accountability Office to rule in February 2005 that government-sponsored TV "news" reports are covert propaganda, unless their source is apparent to viewers.

Unfortunately, broadcasters commonly air ANRs or VNRs without disclosure. According to a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a quarter to a third of local news directors -- by their own admission -- disclose the source of VNRs occasionally, rarely or never. Other evidence suggests that non-disclosure may be an even bigger problem.

What Congress is now considering, thanks to increased public awareness and pressure, is how to ensure appropriate disclosure of government-funded "news."

The Truth in Broadcasting Act, sponsored by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), is one of four Congressional measures recently proposed to deal with fake news. The Act is strong in that it covers ANRs as well as VNRs. It also clearly specifies what constitutes disclosure. For ANRs, a verbal announcement would be required. For VNRs, the phrase "Produced by the U.S. Government" would have to be displayed "conspicuously" throughout the video.

However, the Truth in Broadcasting Act also has serious shortcomings. To begin with, it only addresses government-sponsored ANRs and VNRs, even though private corporations are the main source of fake news. Moreover, the Act doesn't explicitly cover additional audio or video footage, called radio "actualities" or video "B-roll," which are usually provided along with the prepackaged segment. Although these materials are not broadcast-ready, their content and presentation are still determined by parties with an interest in how the institutions, events and issues they deal with are perceived.

The Center for Media and Democracy would have loved to send one of our staff members to the recent Senate hearing. After all, industry was well-represented, by the heads of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and one PR firm that produces VNRs. Watchdogs inside the government -- the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Government Accountability Office -- also testified, but no independent, public-interest perspective was represented.

Ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary, RTNDA president Barbara Cochran claimed that news broadcasters air VNRs "rarely" and neglect to disclose their source "even more rarely." Cochran pointed out that RTNDA's ethics code has called for "clear and complete disclosure" of provided materials since 1989 -- but neglected to inform the committee that her Association does not monitor compliance with or enforce its code.

PRSA president Judith Phair fretted about the fate of the "free flow of information," should the Act pass. She expressed support for the "intent of the legislation," but said its "rigid requirements and specifications" would make using provided materials "so onerous and inappropriate" that broadcasters might forgo them altogether. Similar to Cochran, Phair presented PRSA's code of ethics as proof of the public relations industry's noble practices. (Once again, merely having an ethics code doesn't necessarily translate into compliance. In 12 years of reporting on PR firms' legal and ethical breaches, the Center for Media and Democracy has yet to run out of material.)

Doug Simon of the VNR-producing firm D S Simon Productions warned that the Act might result in federal agencies either decreasing efforts to inform the public, or turning to more deceptive practices, such as funneling VNRs through think tanks or other third parties. On a more philosophical level, Simon ominously stated that "increased government control over news broadcasts" is not a "hallmark of democracy."

Holding a Senate hearing on fake news is, in and of itself, a step in the right direction. However, Commerce Committee Co-chair Sen. Ted Stevens -- who expressed interest in knowing "who was behind the propaganda" declaring his home state of Alaska "pristine" and opposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- appeared perhaps too eager to accommodate industry concerns.

Stevens repeatedly voiced support for delaying any further Congressional action until late July, after the end of the comment period on the FCC's Public Notice on VNRs. This despite assurances from FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Acting General Counsel Austin Schlick that the issue before Congress and the FCC's Public Notice are like proverbial apples and oranges. (The FCC ensures broadcast licensees act in accordance with existing laws and regulations, while Congress is considering new disclosure requirements for broadcast materials sponsored by federal agencies.)

More seriously, Stevens seemed to accept at face value the industry representatives' alarmist rhetoric against the "long arm of the government" in the newsroom. He suggested that the Byrd amendment -- recently passed by the Senate, but only in force during fiscal year 2005, which ends in September -- might be a better legislative model than the Truth in Broadcasting Act. The problem with the Byrd amendment is that it calls for "a clear notification" of government sponsorship, without specifying what that means. It's also unclear whether the Byrd amendment covers ANRs, or just VNRs.

Nothing would suit the PR and broadcast industries better than vague and toothless legislation that effectively maintains the status quo. The reality is that the "long arm of the government" -- and, to a greater extent, the long arm of corporations, industry groups and other large organizations -- are already in the newsroom, shaping what the public sees, hears and reads.

Currently, only a handful of extreme situations trigger ANR and VNR disclosure requirements. These include when the broadcaster is paid to air them; when broadcasters deem their content to be "political or controversial" -- a vague restriction that, in practice, requires public complaints to the FCC, after they've aired (and assumes viewers can identify such footage); or when government agencies admit that their goal in producing them is to persuade, rather than inform, the public.

Like their predecessors in the 1960s, members of Congress must summon the courage to act in the public interest, over industry opposition. Full disclosure should be required for all government-produced and -funded ANRs (including extra actualities) and VNRs (including extra B-roll). The FCC must also act to address the far more prevalent problem of privately-funded fake news, by requiring broadcasters to identify the source of all provided broadcast material.

Until those important steps are taken, the U.S. information environment will remain as hazy, and as polluting, as a smoke-filled room.

Spinning Out of Sight

In some ways, Armstrong Williams got a bad rap. The conservative black commentator, who was paid by the U.S. Department of Education to advertise and advocate for the controversial “No Child Left Behind” law, lost his syndicated newspaper column and was pilloried for not disclosing the payment.

Williams did indeed betray the public trust, but he was a small fry – a subcontractor who received a mere $240,000 of a one-million-dollar deal between the Education Department and Ketchum, one of the world’s largest public-relations agencies.

And that deal is just the tip of the iceberg.

A recent House Committee on Government Reform investigation – launched after similar revelations about two other commentators besides Williams – identified Ketchum as the largest recipient of recent PR spending, with contracts totaling more than $100 million. Looking into federal procurement records for contracts with major PR firms since 1997, the committee's minority office also found that the Bush administration doubled the government's PR spending to $250 million, over its first term.

Yet there is little information about what that money was spent on. The lack of transparency is especially alarming given the recent spate of PR-related scandals, which include not just paid commentators but also the use of video news releases (VNRs) aired on TV stations as news reports. The Government Accountability Office issued two rulings declaring the VNRs produced for two federal agencies in violation of the ban on covert government propaganda.

Despite this worrying evidence of misuse of public funds, the top PR companies refuse to disclose the details of their contracts. Requests for information from the PR firms that received at least a million dollars from the federal government since 1997 were met with partial and unsatisfactory answers, at best. None of the firms were willing to share any information not already publicly available — including contract agreements or “deliverables” like studies, brochures and VNRs – to clarify what they really did with all that taxpayer money.

Ketchum

Ketchum has received a whopping $100.5 million in federal contracts since 1997. These deals included work for the Education Department; Internal Revenue Service; U.S. Army, to “reconnect the Army with the American people” and boost recruiting around its 225th birthday; and the Health and Human Services Department, to “change the face of Medicare,” promote long-term health care planning, encourage preventative care, and present home care information.

Large increases in Ketchum’s federal work since 2003 mirror the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ PR spending boost, suggesting that their Medicare work may be more extensive than is currently known.

Apart from the scandal surrounding Armstrong Williams, the firm also produced a controversial VNR for the Education Department that promoted tutoring programs under “No Child Left Behind,” and included then-Education Secretary Rod Paige and PR flack Karen Ryan, who misrepresented herself as a reporter.

Ketchum representatives did not return repeated phone calls – making them among the least responsive of the firms contacted by PR Watch.

Fleishman-Hillard

The recipient of $77 million in federal contracts, Fleishman-Hillard has worked for the Social Security Administration; Library of Congress; Environmental Protection Agency; and the Defense Department, to introduce “managed care” to employees, due to “rising medical costs” and “decreasing resources.”

While Fleishman-Hillard also did not return any phone calls, the firm notes in its application for the prestigious Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America that the main challenge of the DoD contract was “the anger and frustration of the retired military community who were now required to pay an annual fee for guaranteed access to health care they said was promised them by their recruiter as a free lifetime benefit.”

The company also worked for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to “debunk the misconception that marijuana was harmless.” Part of that contract involved producing VNRs, which were later found to be covert propaganda, because ONDCP “did not identify itself to the viewing audience as the producer and distributor of these prepackaged news stories.”

In addition, Los Angeles’ city controller has accused Fleishman-Hillard of over-billing the city’s Water and Power Department by $4.2 million. Several former employees said they were told to inflate the hours billed to the city. One described Fleishman-Hillard’s attitude as, “Get as much as you can because these accounts may dry up tomorrow.”


Equals Three Communications

Equals Three received $23.8 million in federal contracts, including work for the National Institutes of Health, on Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month; National Institute for Mental Health; and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Vice president of PR Kimberly Marr complained (a week after the first request for information) about “the extensive nature of your questions and the short timeline.” Her final word: “Everything … is in the public domain.”

What "public domain" she is referring to is unclear, however, since a series of searches on the Nexis news database, PR trade publications, and the internet reveal little information about the firm's federal work.

The company's desire for secrecy is so great that even materials posted on Equal Three’s web site are sized and cropped in such a way that it’s difficult to determine who they were produced for.

Hill & Knowlton

Hill & Knowlton has received a total of $19.2 million from the federal government since 1997.

Director of business development and marketing Lily Loh refused to answer questions, claiming that they entailed “proprietary information that we cannot share due to client confidentiality,” although some work is “available in the public record.” A search only revealed one campaign with the General Services Administration for work on the “Dedication of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center” in Washington D.C.

One can only guess at what Hill & Knowlton’s other work for the federal government. This is a firm best known for pushing the first Gulf War on behalf of their client, the government of Kuwait; flacking for Indonesia during the brutal occupation of East Timor; helping organize the industry-funded Council for Tobacco Research, created to downplay the dangers of smoking; and handling damage control for Wal-Mart in California.

Widmeyer Communications

The company has received a total of $7.4 million in contracts from the following federal agencies: the Selective Service System; Federal Trade Commission; Health and Human Services Department; Education Department; National Institute for Literacy; Farm Service Agency; and Defense Department, for their Deployment Health Clinical Center.

Assistant vice president Scott Ward said that Widmeyer “never uses paid third-party spokespeople,” and that the firm produces video footage, but not ready-to-air VNRs.

Burson-Marsteller

Burson-Marsteller received a total of $1.9 million, including from the Census Bureau; Bureau of Engraving and Printing for work on the $20 bill redesign; Treasury Department; and Postal Service for “Managing Communication During the Anthrax Crisis.”

Global public affairs chief Richard Mintz confirms that Burson-Marsteller does produce VNRs, but the firm clearly identifies their source. He says the firm has not used paid spokespeople, “per se,” but has signed contracts with third parties, such as senior and minority groups, to reach target populations.

Burson-Marsteller, however, has a less than stellar track record in its corporate work, which includes directing “crisis communications” on mad cow disease for McDonald’s and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association; running the front group “European Women for HPV Testing” for the U.S. biotechnology company Digene; creating the “National Smokers Alliance” to combat smoking restrictions for Philip Morris; infiltrating activist groups opposing the milk hormone BGH, for Monsanto subsidiary Nutra-Sweet and Eli Lilly; and boosting Indonesia’s “human rights and environmental image” after a 1991 massacre in East Timor.

Ogilvy PR Worldwide

Ogilvy PR received $1.6 million for contracts that include work for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and Office of National Drug Control Policy, on their National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

Ogilvy is now working for the Homeland Security Department, “to provide real journalists for its biennial mock terrorist exercise.” The director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said that contract “raises potential future conflicts even if the reporter doesn’t now cover the governmental entity writing the check.”

Last month, two former executives of the related marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather were found guilty of conspiracy and false claims, for inflating labor costs on the ONDCP account. According to the indictment, the executives “directed certain Ogilvy employees to revise time sheets and caused falsified time sheets to be submitted to the government.”

Oglivy is among the firms that did not respond to repeated requests for information.

In their refusal to reveal the details of publicly-funded contracts, these major PR companies reveal a startling lack of accountability. More alarming is the fact that it is very difficult to get this information through Freedom of Information Act requests. For example, the Ketchum/Education Department documents obtained by People for the American Way have every dollar amount redacted.

As the House Government Reform Committee noted, “Not all government PR contracts are problematic,” but they must be “authorized by Congress and conducted in a fashion that does not mislead the public.” If, as Burson-Marsteller’s Richard Mintz claims, the “public education campaigns” PR firms undertake for the government are “essential,” why must they be shrouded in such secrecy? It's a question the American people must ask of their public officials, and one that PR firms must consider to combat their own image problems.

Media Need to Move On

This year’s presidential campaign has already provided many reasons to bemoan the state of American journalism. Here’s one more: the marginalization of grassroots activism.

This marginalization is caused by two reasons. One, the media does not cover instances of popular political expression, including demonstrations, issue-based activism and other organizing outside of the two-party system. Or, if these activities are covered, they are presented as spectacles – not as an integral part of our ongoing democratic dialogue.

Two, the media in contrast gives inordinate attention to fly-by-night groups with little evidence of real support. Why? Because these groups’ sensational claims make for entertaining and easily produced news stories. The result is that a Swift Boats Veterans for Truth has greater impact on the national debate than long-established activist organizations.

The United for Peace and Justice march outside this year’s Republican National Convention was the largest protest ever at a political convention. If journalists had treated that demonstration as politically significant, they would have devoted print space and air-time to issues that led protesters to travel from around the country to the streets of New York. Candidates in turn would be forced to offer their plans to address those issues, if elected.

The short-lived coverage of the RNC demonstrations focused instead on the remote possibility of violence, the legal back-and-forth over the rally permit, how angry the protesters seemed, and questionable police tactics. In under-covering the protesters, the media also in effect passed over the issues important to the nation. For example, a Lexis-Nexis search reveals that newspaper and wire reports on the presidential race during the week of the RNC mentioned Vietnam nearly as often as Iraq.

This warped sense of priorities also reflects the preponderant influence of the new, small and factually-challenged group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in shaping media coverage, which was driven by their false allegations regarding Sen. Kerry’s Vietnam War service.

As the presidential campaign enters its last month, more such dubious groups – and more ads – are likely to rear their ugly head. On Sept. 3, Associated Press reported on the most recent addition, MoveOnForAmerica.org. “Move over, MoveOn.org,” the article began. “The liberal-leaning group that has raised millions of dollars to run negative ads attacking President Bush now has a competitor on the right with a somewhat similar name.”

The AP report illustrates how lazy reporting helps media manipulators, at the expense of real concerns voiced by significant numbers of real people. The story lead suggests that MoveOn.org and MoveOnForAmerica.org are comparable organizations, running similar “negative ads.”

Even cursory research proves otherwise.

MoveOn.org is a liberal, grassroots-focused, Internet-based organization that has been around for six years. Its more than two million members support the group’s activities, mostly through small donations.

In contrast, MoveOnForAmerica.org is less than one month old. Stephen Marks registered the web site’s domain name on Aug. 25; he registered the group with the IRS on Sept. 3 – the same day that AP ran its story. Marks admitted that the group’s name was chosen “just to get the press’s attention. … We want to kind of do what MoveOn.org has done, but on the other side.” MoveOnForAmerica.org “was created due to the Bush campaign’s largely timid ads against Mr. Kerry,” according to its web site.

MoveOn.org, however, does a lot more than just run ads focused on the presidential race. It also organizes petition drives, Congressional call-in days, demonstrations, concerts and movie screenings, and raises funds for various Congressional and statewide races. MoveOn's self-declared goal is “to help each individual have the greatest possible impact” on issues of war and peace, the environment, and campaign finance, among others.

Another illustrative comparison is the groups’ fundraising clout. While MoveOn.org has raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on a wide range of projects, Marks told AP that MoveOnForAmerica.org had raised $200,000 for television ads. The New York Daily News was skeptical of his claim: “So far, they can be found only on the Internet, raising suspicions Marks is seeking buzz while shopping around for a big-bucks donor to pay for airtime.”

In my interview with Marks, he declined to say how many people were involved with MoveOnForAmerica.org or how much money had been raised. “We are approaching the big money people now,” he said, but it’s difficult, because “our ads are a little edgier” and the “stuffy, country club type of Republican” might be scared off. He admitted that the date for airing their first ad had been delayed, from early to late September.

Of course, this easy formula to influence a national election – scrounge together enough money to air a sensational ad a few times and then wait for free media coverage – is nothing new.

Remember William “Willie” Horton? The African-American man physically and sexually assaulted a couple while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The case was featured in 1988 ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate and then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Although now infamous, the original Horton ad aired on cable TV in just two New England markets.

Similarly, the Swift Boat ad ran just over 700 times in three states, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. The Project points out that only two percent of the U.S. population could have seen the Swift Boat group’s paid ads – meaning “most of the people aware of the content of these ads have seen them in news media coverage.”

Stephen Marks, among many others, is well aware of these examples. It's why the MoveOnForAmerica.org ads, as described by the San Francisco Chronicle, rely on “innuendo, leaps of logic and guilt by association.”

Journalists have a responsibility, of course, to cover real controversies. However, they do the public a grave disservice when they marginalize real grassroots efforts and concerns to focus on groups whose sole purpose is to introduce contrived controversies into political discourse.

Painting Happy Faces on Black Boxes

Last week it was reported that nearly all of Miami-Dade County's records of votes cast on electronic voting machines in the 2002 gubernatorial primary were lost (the information later turned up, but serious questions remain), and that Florida's Republican Party was warning voters, "Electronic voting machines do not have a paper ballot.... Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today." That's two more heavy straws added to the back of an already unhappy camel.

It's amazing how far the reputation of electronic voting has fallen. On November 9, 2000, Texas-based e-voting company Hart InterCivic bragged, "Electronic voting and reporting can be instrumental in avoiding the situation we're seeing in the Presidential election.... If Florida had used an e-voting system, we'd know the winner already, and there would be a party going on right now in Austin or Nashville."

Actually, the Florida 2000 debacle was due, in part, to an e-voting glitch. In a Florida precinct where just over 400 people voted, machines registered 2,813 votes for Bush and negative 16,022 votes for Gore. USA Today reported that on election night "the decision desks of the five networks and the Associated Press... were looking at models that included the negative Gore count."

As the undeniably sorry state of U.S. elections and the strong civil rights, disabled rights and voting rights activism pushed Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in October 2002, e-voting companies were celebrating what one industry analysis called a "tremendous market opportunity."

Around the same time, expert critiques of and troubling incidents with e-voting systems multiplied to the point of attracting major media attention. In response, the "only trade association representing the broad spectrum of the world-leading U.S. [information technology] industry" urged e-voting companies to unite under a public relations banner, and the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) took the lead.

The ITAA lobbies on behalf of its more than 400 U.S. corporate and 50 foreign association members. Its political action committee focuses on taxes, outsourcing and other issues important to high-tech industries. ITAA's Enterprise Solutions Director, Michael Kerr, developed an E-voting Industry Coalition Draft Plan in late 2002, to "create confidence and trust," "promote the adoption of technology-based solutions," and "repair short-term damage done by negative reports and media coverage." The plan advocates outreach to media, elected officials, those "involved in the purchase decision," academics, the general public, "international counterparts," and government contractors (in that order) to promote electronic voting as the "gold standard." Kerr's plan concludes by stressing that e-voting companies could benefit from ITAA's "sophisticated government affairs and public relations apparatus" and "track record of lobbying for federal funding."

Activist Bev Harris obtained the ITAA plan and posted it on her website, blackboxvoting.org. Kerr subsequently downplayed its importance, calling it "just a standard trade association plan," according to Wired News. But other activists who joined an industry conference call reported that ITAA president Harris Miller said the plan was carefully worded, because "we just didn't want a document floating around saying the election industry is in trouble, so they decided to put together a lobbying campaign."

In October 2003, Kerr told Technology Daily that the e-voting companies had not yet decided whether to implement his plan, but that he expected a decision "fairly soon." On December 9, ITAA announced the formation of the Election Technology Council (ETC), directed by Michael Kerr. ETC's founding members are Advanced Voting Systems, Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, Sequoia and Unilect.

At ETC's launch, Hart InterCivic head David Hart said the group formed just when "voters are beginning to realize the benefits of electronic voting." But Computerworld quoted Hart giving a different rationale: "We came together because our environment has become chaotic.... We need to be able to speak as an industry in a single voice on the areas being regulated.... We want to be part of the debate and tell our industry's side of the story. There's a lot of misinformation."

In an interview with PR Watch, Michael Kerr called ETC "still kind of formative... we've obviously been tracking the security debate." But he identified some priorities, including making the "state certification process more uniform and faster" and securing a seat on the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, a body assisting with the development of voluntary federal voting systems standards. Kerr said ETC offers "an industry wide perspective," free from "the marketing or sales perspectives of individual vendors."

When asked about security concerns, Kerr responded, "There are many things that should reassure people who use electronic voting.... The critics are focused on hypothetical scenarios... not on how the system is actually implemented." Although "no technology is invulnerable," he claimed "there have been no documented security breaches with electronic voting in an election."

One indication of ETC's influence came from Wilmington's News Journal in December 2003. Written by the Delaware elections commissioner and titled "Voting Machines Are Reliable," the article warned: "Some people are riding a bandwagon wanting receipts of their votes so they know they have been cast, and some states are obliging that trend. That opens the door for tampering with voting machines to switch and lose votes as well as 'fix' the paper receipts." The piece ended, "Contact my office... for additional information by the Election Technology Council."

The Election Assistance Commission, the federal body overseeing HAVA implementation – which generated alarm recently when its chair asked for a contingency plan to delay elections in case of a terrorist attack – held its first public hearing on electronic voting in May. Although there was a vendor's panel, ETC's "unified voice" was not heard as such. The day before the hearing, however, ITAA "released a survey that found 77 percent of registered voters were either 'not very concerned' or 'not concerned at all' about the security of election systems," according to Associated Press. Computer scientist Aviel Rubin dismissed the ITAA survey, stating, "Would they ask questions about the safety of a medical procedure of patients or of doctors? They should ask computer security experts about computer security questions."

The ITAA/ ETC response to "Computer Ate My Vote" rallies in 19 states across the country in mid-July may be indicative of a new strategy: discredit the opposition. Harris Miller told Computerworld, "It's not about voting machines. It's a religious war about open-source software vs. proprietary software." Miller compared listening to e-voting critics – whom he characterized as open-source proponents, ignoring the concerns of such broad-based groups as the League of Women Voters – to "asking a bunch of clergymen what they think of premarital sex."

By January 2006, states must comply with HAVA mandates for updated and accessible voting machines, among other requirements. With big money at stake – nearly $4 billion is allocated to states under HAVA – the electronic voting industry is sure to intensify its PR war. The problem is, if the camel's back breaks, so does the cornerstone of our democracy.

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