Expert deception

Feb 7, 2001 at 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hausman: What led you, personally, to become one of the PR industry’s most vocal critics?

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

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

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

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

Tate Hausman is managing editor of Alternet, a San Francisco-based alternative news service. E-mail [email protected]